With people being encouraged to observe social distancing and isolation during the coronavirus outbreak, family lawyers are being asked how best to manage shared custody arrangements.
Legal Aid NSW family law director Kylie Beckhouse said common questions included whether people needed to comply with court orders during the pandemic and how to manage changeovers if schools were to close.
She said people would still need to comply with court orders.
“Talk to the other party, and if you cannot talk to them, try and communicate via a third party to work out a sensible resolution,” Ms Beckhouse said.
Family lawyer Rebecca Bunney said people might feel torn between breaching parenting orders and wanting to limit their children’s movements.
She said parents should try to have a combined approach to keeping the children away from crowds and older people.
Outbreak ‘not an excuse’ to cut another parent out
Ms Bunney said even if there were court orders in place, parents could still agree to vary the orders while social distancing and isolation was being encouraged.
“This is a public health emergency, this is not an excuse to start messing around with your parenting orders just because that is what you want to do.
“The advice to clients would be make sure the other parent is not missing out on time and they get make-up time, so if they miss two nights this week then say to them: ‘It is a credit, you will get to spend that time with them once this self-isolation is over.’
“They [should] get telephone calls with the children — FaceTime is a great option.
“It is not about cutting that other parent out, it is about keeping everyone safe.”
Parents self-isolating children may be shown sympathy
Ms Bunney said she believed in the event a parent contravened court orders, the court may take a sympathetic approach to those that wanted to isolate their children during the pandemic.
“Any parent that is isolating their children due to health concerns should be making every effort possible to continue to allow the child to have a relationship with the other parent, even if it is not face to face,” she said.
“What I would be recommending to people is to put everything in an email, have everything in writing, set out your concerns really clearly and do your very best to have a sensible, practical discussion about this.
“Do your very best to put all of your past hurt and concerns about your former partner to one side and really just focus on where is the best place for your children to be to have their movements limited as much as possible,” she said.
No increase in applications, WA Chief Judge says
In a statement, the Chief Judge of the Family Court of Western Australia said the court had not seen an increase in applications for parenting orders arising from concerns about COVID-19.
Chief Judge Gail Sutherland said it would be wrong and potentially confusing for the public if the Family Court were to produce general guidelines about any impact of concerns about COVID-19 on parenting cases.
“When the court is deciding a parenting dispute, the best interests of the child are the paramount consideration,” she said.
“In any case, the determination of those best interests can be multifaceted and complex and will depend on the individual circumstances of the particular family.
“Like all members of the public, parents with cases before the Family Court should pay careful attention to information and guidance provided by Government and the health authorities.”
The Family Court of Australia has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by making changes to court operations to accommodate social distancing.
Urgent and priority trials including child-related and family violence matters will remain listed and will be conducted “in the safest manner possible”.
Non-urgent property-only trials may be adjourned, and non-urgent parenting trials will be given similar consideration at the discretion of the judge, while trials or hearings that can be done by telephone will be.
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