The family court have put arrangements in place so that it can continue to process applications for child arrangements during the coronavirus pandemic.

If you are a parent or have parental responsibility for a child, you can apply for a child arrangements order, a prohibited steps order or specific issue order.

  • A ‘child arrangement order’ decides where your child lives; how often your child spends time with each parent; when and what other types of contact take place (for example, phone or video calls). 
  • A ‘specific issue order’ decides particular issues about how the child is brought up, for example whether they should have a religious education. 
  • A ‘prohibited steps order’ stops the other parent from making a decision about the child’s upbringing.

Making the application

Given the current coronavirus pandemic, it is recommended that you apply online. You can find the online application form here. The application costs £215.

Unless you are exempt, you will still need to attempt a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). The exemptions are set out here.

There is guidance, which you should read before applying. 

If you need a hearing within the next 3 days or if there are serious safety concerns, HMCTS recommends that you do not use the online application. Instead you must contact your local court.

After applying

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) will send you information and contact you before a hearing takes place.

Cafcass is working remotely due to concerns about the spread of coronavirus. Telephone calls, Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime and other forms of video conferencing are being used to complete interviews with parents. 

Cafcass have provided guidance here. 

First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA)

The President of the Family Court has published guidance that states that all FHDRAs are suitable for remote hearing. The hearing is therefore likely to take place remotely. The court will contact you, or your legal representative to obtain the best contact details ahead of the hearing.

At that hearing, the judge or magistrates will try to set out what is agreed or not agreed and whether the child is at risk.

If parents cannot reach an agreement, the judge or magistrate may ask parents to go on a course called a ‘Separated Parents Information Programme’. Ex-partners will not be required to go to the same meetings as each other.

The President’s guidance can be found here. 

Further hearings

The President’s guidance sets out that the following hearings can also happen remotely:

  • Dispute Resolution Appointments.
  • Other interim hearings.
  • Simple short contested cases.

If both parents cannot agree, Cafcass are likely to be asked by the court to write a report to help the court make a decision on what is best for the child. They are likely to look at:

  • The child’s wishes and feelings
  • The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
  • The effect that any changes may have on the child
  • The child’s age, gender, characteristics and background
  • Any possible risk of harm to the child
  • The ability of parents to meet the child’s needs

Seeing the other parent during the coronavirus pandemic

The court may make an order for the child to spend time with the other parent. This might be in the interim period until further order, or it may be part of a final order.

The government have made clear that children under 18 can be moved between their parent’s homes during the period of coronavirus pandemic lockdown. The guidance can be found here.  

Parents must make a decision about whether it is in the child’s best interests to move the child between homes. This decision must be based on the child’s health, the risk of infection and the presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or the other.  

If the child, or someone in their household, has contracted coronavirus or they have any of the symptoms, they should be self-isolating and should not be travelling between their parent’s homes.

Contact centres

The family courts will not currently order any contact to take place at contact centres.

The National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) have advised that people should not be attending contact centres at the moment.

Centres are trying to work with families to see if there are other people that could support child arrangements, taking the role of the contact centre. Given current guidance in lockdown, this third party is likely to have to be a member of the other parent’s household.

If direct contact cannot be maintained, safe alternative arrangements for the child should be made.

This might include video calls; using Facetime, WhatsApp video, Skype or other video services. It may also include additional calls or text messages.

Enforcing a court order

If a parent is not following the court order, you can apply to the court for enforcement. You can find the application forms here.

The court may make an ‘enforcement order’, which will require the non-compliant parent to do between 40 and 200 hours of unpaid work.

The court may not enforce the order if they think that the other parent is not following it because they have good reason.

The court are likely to consider it a good reason if the child, or someone in their household, has contracted coronavirus or they have any of the symptoms. This is because they should be self-isolating.

If you do not agree with the court’s decision or your situation changes, you can go back to court.

Alexandra is regularly instructed in all areas of family law and specialises in private law children work. She accepts instructions to act through a solicitor or directly from members of the public on a Direct Access basis.

Article accurate as of Monday 6 April 2020.