There’s no question these are trying times as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst all the challenges and difficulties being faced by the community, the potential effect of the pandemic on family law matters needs to be considered. There may be additional challenges you need to face during this time, so let’s take a look at some of the relevant issues.
The effect on parenting arrangements
Everyone is understandably worried about the pandemic, but practical issues can also arise for parents who are separated or divorced. School closures and/or self-isolation could cause challenges in shared parenting arrangements. While some people are able to work from home, this won’t apply to everyone (for example, frontline healthcare workers).
Agree on a plan
It’s wise to make a plan for any changes you need to face. If you will likely need to modify your parenting schedule as a consequence of schools closing, working from home or self-isolation, be proactive rather than wait. Maintain open communication with your co-parent about practical solutions to any challenges in parenting arrangements.
Modifying parenting arrangements
You may need to temporarily modify parenting arrangements. This may be in a minor or a more substantial way. Circumstances may arise where one parent has to stop seeing a child for a longer period of time.
If you need to concede some parenting time, you may wish to explore make up time when things return to normal. The National Law Review notes:
“You don’t lose your rights by making modifications, and you may just score some brownie points with the judge later on.”
Travel restrictions due to COVID-19
School holidays are not far off, only weeks away. The impact of the pandemic has seen holiday plans cancelled as services in the tourism sector are affected by bans and restrictions. Apart from overseas travel, even non-essential local travel is not considered wise with social distancing measures. It may be that you too have to change plans or find alternatives to long-looked forward to family trips. In some cases, the parenting arrangement has been for the child to travel to see a non-custodial parent and this may have to be curtailed.
If this is the case, communicate with your co-parent about scheduling a missed holiday at another time of the year instead. The children will often accept changed plans if parents remain united behind a plan.
Uncertainty over changeovers
Another thing to consider is that school closures could have unexpected side effects on the implementation of parenting orders. In the US, some schools have closed due to COVID-19 but described this closure as “extending Spring Break”. This is causing a lot of confusion for parents whose court orders specify that they have the children for “half the school holidays”. Some families are struggling with the uncertainty over changeovers and/or claims of withholding children. Some lawyers in the US are suggesting this could lead to non-compliance penalties, or “the act of a non-complying parent can sour their custody case in the future”.
A similar situation could happen here in Australia if schools are closed around the upcoming Easter school holidays but are then described as “extending” the holiday, making court orders potentially opaque.
Under these circumstances, it’s best to work out the plan for how to share the “extended” holiday period with your co-parent well in advance in order to make changeover dates crystal clear and agree on them in writing.
The effect on kids
Children are inevitably witnessing their parents’ anxiety and could be psychologically affected so it’s important to find ways to explain the situation to help reduce their fear (and your own). Here’s a good article on how to talk to your children about the pandemic to reduce anxiety.
And of course at this time, the last thing you want to be doing is adding parental fighting into the mix, so keep calm and stay civil.
How our Family Courts are being affected
The Sydney registry of the Family Court in Goulburn Street was closed on 17 March 2020 after a family lawyer tested positive for COVID-19. However, the closure was only expected to last 24 hours. Still, the closure has caused some to argue that large court precincts have been ignored by the Government in its advice on banning mass gatherings.
On their own steam, the courts are trying their best to keep the community safe as well as avoid increasing the delays that already besiege the system. The family courts had recently announced they would begin to stagger hearings around Australia in order to limit the numbers of people attending courts, and courts in all jurisdictions are hurrying to facilitate delivery of even more court proceedings virtually by phone or audiovisual conferencing.
You can read the Family Court’s press release on COVID-19 here.
Virtual family law help
Here at Alliance Family Law, we are well placed to assist if you are in self-isolation or quarantine but still wish to speak with a family lawyer. We already utilise state-of-the-art video conferencing technology and the latest legal support software to assist our clients all around Australia. One of our innovations which will also help during this time is that we give our clients access to a client portal, which is used to complete court forms, edit letters and affidavits and generally stay in touch and communicate.
We are easily able to assist you through virtual platforms–even if you are a Canberra local. For assistance with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.
The courts also enable various online and e-filing services. For information on these, please see our blog on the topic.
Wishing our readers and clients all the best during this difficult time.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.