Please read the following important info for parents about COVID-19, family law and the family courts. Many parents are confused about the situation regarding co-parenting arrangements and court matters during the current crisis. People are asking if they still need to strictly follow court orders if they are afraid compliance might put their child at risk. Will matters proceed in court as normal? How can you change parenting arrangements if the courts aren’t operating as normal? We answer these questions and more below. Please share with family and friends who may be asking these questions and experiencing uncertainty regarding family law matters.
COVID-19: Family Court guidelines for co-parents
The Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia has published some guidelines for parents in light of the COVID-19 virus. The full statement can be found on the Court’s COVID-19 page on its website. In the meantime, here is a summary of the highlights:
- Naturally parents or carers will be concerned about their ability to comply with parenting orders and have questions about what should be properly expected of them by the Courts.
- The Courts remain open but things will be done differently during the pandemic.
- Parents must continue to act in the best interests of their children. This means ensuring your children’s safety and wellbeing. Caring for and determining the practical day-to-day best interests of a child is primarily the responsibility of parents and carers. In other words, the courts can’t do everything.
If you have court orders
Parents and carers are expected to comply with Court orders in relation to parenting arrangements. This includes facilitating time being spent by the children with each parent or carer pursuant to parenting orders.
When compliance is difficult or impossible due to COVID-19
During the pandemic, the court recognises that there may be situations that arise that make strict compliance with current court orders very difficult, if not, impossible. Examples include:
- If orders are for contact with a parent at a contact centre, as the centre may not be operating currently .
- If “pick up” arrangements of a child nominate a particular school, and that school is now closed.
- Many state borders are also closed. Cross-border contact may not occur because the parent simply cannot cross a State line.
- If you have genuine safety issues that have arisen (a parent, or someone in close contact with that parent, has been exposed to COVID-19), the safe movement of a child from one house to another may be restricted.
What to do if co-parenting arrangements need to change due to COVID-19
The court is encouraging parents as a first step, if it is safe to do so, to communicate with each other about their ability to comply with current orders.
- Try to find a practical solution to these difficulties. For example, if changeovers were to take place at the child’s school and the school is now closed, discuss alternative places to meet for changeovers.
- Consider alternatives sensibly and reasonably.
- Consider the safety and best interests of the child, but also appreciate the concerns of the other parent when attempting to reach new or revised arrangements.
- Understand that family members are important to children and the risk of infection to vulnerable members of the child’s family and household should also be considered.
Reaching new agreements
If an agreement can be reached about new parenting arrangements, even if they are to be adjusted for a short period of time, this agreement should ideally be in writing, even if by way of email, text message or WhatsApp between each other. Try to set out the alternative agreement as clearly as possibly to avoid any confusion.
This will be particularly important if there are later family law hearings and will assist all concerned, including the Court, to understand what agreement may have been reached during the pandemic.
There are options available to talk through your concerns via the Family Relationships Advice Line and telephone-based Family Dispute Resolution services. 1800 050 321 or visit the website.
Don’t forget you can mediate your differences through lawyers. Electronic mediation services are available through Alliance Family Law using Zoom or telephone
If an agreement has been reached and consent orders have been developed to outline new or varied parenting orders, consent order applications can be filed electronically with the Court.
Mediation and Family Dispute Resolution (FDR)
During the pandemic, you can still mediate a parenting arrangement via remote mediation services.
Even if you are thinking of going to court to get parenting orders, the law requires separating families to make a genuine effort to try to sort it out through family dispute resolution (FDR) before filing an application for parenting orders in court.
Such FDR can take weeks or months to set up. Now is as good a time as any to start that process. If you reach agreement Alliance Family Law can convert your deal into legally binding documents.
There are a few exceptions to this requirement to attempt mediation first, such as cases involving family violence, child abuse or urgency – please contact us for further advice if you think your matter falls into one of these categories.
Ultimately, if FDR fails and you want to file an application, you’ll need to file a certificate from an accredited FDR practitioner. The certificate is issued under Section 60I of the Family Law Act 1975 and is commonly known as a Section 60I Certificate.
You can visit Family Relationships Online for more information about the services and advice available for families, including seeking services from an FDR practitioner.
Most FDR practitioners are offering Zoom or phone mediations. The pandemic need not stop you reaching agreement about parenting matters and then formulising that agreement through legally binding documents which are filed online.
If you can’t agree on changes
If you are unable to agree to vary the arrangement, or if it is unsafe to do so, and one or both parents continue to have real concerns, either party can file an application in court electronically and seek a variation of the orders. Alliance Family Law can help you with this.
Try to ensure that the other parent continues to have some contact with the children such as by videoconferencing, social media, or if that is not possible, by telephone through this pandemic if it’s agreed that face to face contact can’t go ahead. Anything is better than nothing and remember, one day the pandemic will be over and the kids will be back spending time with the other parent, so it might be easier all round if some sort of remote contact continues in the meantime.
What the courts regard as “reasonable” behaviour by parents
Be mindful that at all times, parents must act reasonably. A court will look at whether you acted reasonably, or had a reasonable excuse for not complying with Court orders, if there is later an application for contravention filed in court.
Even if the orders cannot be strictly followed, try to stick to the purpose or spirit of the orders.
The court will deal with family law matters during the pandemic as appropriate even if it means conducting hearings both via videoconferencing or by telephone.
The Registries are still open for telephone appointments, electronic filing and the listing of urgent cases.
Family Consultants will also continue their vital work through these electronic mediums as best they can.
How court operations have changed
The current COVID-19 responsive situation with the Family Court of Australia, and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia is set out below in summary:
- priority being given to urgent and critical cases including parenting matters;
- all registry counters are closed until further notice;
- numerous procedural hearings and mentions are occurring by telephone;
- in urgent circumstances, face-to-face services may be provided after initial assessment via telephone;
- the courts have published the following phone numbers and email addresses for inquiries:
Family law enquiries: 1300 352 000
Assistance, including necessary adjournments, should be directed at first instance, to Michael Raine via email@example.com or (08) 8219 1641.
General court-related enquiries can be directed to the National Enquiry Centre by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 1300 352 000.
New online filing services
The Family Court of Australia is adding online filing to certain applications which used to be dealt with face to face in the Registries.
New measures include:
- filing everything online which formerly had options for both online filing and also physical filing;
- if documents are unable to be e-filed because the Commonwealth Court Portal is not yet set up for e-filing, then they should be emailed to the relevant registry for filing.
- hard copies of documents should not be posted or delivered to the registry, except in the limited circumstance where a party is unrepresented and unable to email documents.
Subpoena viewing at all Court registries is by appointment only. Requests for an appointment should be made by emailing the relevant registry.
Legal practitioners and parties should only make appointments to view subpoenaed material if they have a matter scheduled for hearing in the subsequent 4 weeks or the matter is urgent.
COVID-19: Changes to the ACT Magistrates Court (family violence matters included)
The ACT Magistrates Court has published some information for court users setting out new arrangements to deal with Covid-19.
- The court is asking personal attendees to follow the usual published sanitising guidelines. If you are in self-isolation, you are asked not to attend court in person.
- For urgent matters, the court will consider applications to expedite hearings and has provided the legal profession with emails to use to make these applications.
- If you have a matter listed for hearing between now and July 2020, the majority of those cases are likely to be postponed, and the court will contact you or your lawyer.
- Family violence orders and personal protection orders will be dealt with by post or email. If your matter is urgent, it should by “filed” that way before 11.30am and an order may be made that day after an interim hearing by phone. Applications “filed” after 11.30am are likely to be dealt with the following day.
- The court will communicate with parties using their last known address, so ensure the court has your current contact details on file.
- Registrar’s conferences for family law matters will now take place by phone.
- A number of subpoena hearings will be dealt with ‘in chambers’ on the papers by a Registrar .Other matters will be dealt with by phone.
- Court-ordered Mediations between now and 17 April 2020 will continue by phone/audio visual link. Mediations between 18 April and 1 July 2020 are cancelled.
How we can help
Alliance Family Law is monitoring current developments with COVID-19. We will post regular updates on our Facebook page, so check back in with us to see what the courts, the law society and the legal profession is doing to look after you and your family law matters.
Since inception nearly 7 years ago, Alliance Family Law has been a paperless office, and we use remote technology to manage cases, files and communications. Accordingly, we are able to provide services throughout the crisis with minimal disruption.
We are currently using the Zoom platform to meet and carry out client conferences. If you would like more information or would like to book a Zoom conference or telephone call – please send an email to email@example.com and we will book you in to speak to a solicitor for a FREE INITIAL CONSULTATION* during business hours from the convenience of your home or office. (*20 minutes to discuss how we would manage your case, likely broad issues and likely next steps).
Please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.