Government plans to limit household mixing to three households over five days during the Christmas period will put a strain on separated families leaving many struggling to agree child custody arrangements over the holidays, say lawyers.
With family courts dealing with massive backlogs and many separated parents already using pandemic restrictions as an excuse to change longstanding child custody arrangements, the short window of time allocated to seeing extended family is likely to cause further conflict.
Experts at London law firm Osbornes Law warn that those anticipating disagreements over how children spend the Christmas holidays should address them as soon as possible as they can take some time to resolve.
Claire Andrews, family law solicitor at Osbornes Law, explains: “This year there are limited opportunities for extended families to spend Christmas together. Within families there will be differing views about how much risk to take and whether to meet with other households at all.
“Since the first lockdown began we have seen parents seeking to either reduce contact or prevent children from seeing their mother or father altogether, using coronavirus restrictions, or fears about spreading the virus as an excuse.
“The new Christmas regulations are likely to exacerbate this problem, with parents arguing over who has contact and when during the five-day window.”
Coronavirus regulations allow separated parents to maintain existing custody arrangements which should apply regardless, including over the Christmas period. Parents can make changes if both parties agree but neither should be using restrictions to get more time with their children.
Claire says, “Parents can of course agree to change their usual contact arrangements and many may want to do that so that children are able to see extended family over the Christmas period. Now that we know what the new restrictions will be, I would advise separated parents to agree a plan as soon as possible.
“My experience of advising families since the pandemic began has shown that some parents have genuine safety concerns, perhaps because a family member is shielding, whilst others are using restrictions as a way of attempting to change agreed child contact arrangements.
“The best outcomes are where parents work hard to find arrangements that everyone is comfortable with and are in their children’s best interests. Unfortunately, there are those who are not open to compromise and are simply trying to take advantage. In cases like these legal action is necessary.”
Claire’s advice to those in dispute about child contact arrangements over Christmas and beyond are:
- Tackle the issue as soon as possible as child contact matters can take time to resolve.
- Attempt to agree a plan between yourselves where possible.
- If not, your solicitor can write to the other parent, asking for them to agree to child contact.
- If this fails, virtual mediation is a good option and actually, it being virtual and not face to face can take the heat out of the situation.
- If this still doesn’t resolve things you will need to apply to the family courts to deal with the child contact arrangements. If the matter concerns Christmas specifically the courts will attempt to list an urgent hearing before the 25th this is not guaranteed.
- An alternative to going to court is children arbitration. This is where a third party makes a decision about the contact dispute. The arbitrator’s final determination will be a binding ruling. Though it can be costly, as you have to pay for the arbitrator, it is often far quicker than the court process and is less adversarial.
Claire explains, “The family courts are snowed under with the pandemic exacerbating existing backlogs in the system. Where possible it’s best to avoid the courts as the process can be draw out and costly. Sometimes however, parents will not have a choice – I have one client, a keyworker, who has been denied contact with his children since March due to his ex-partner’s supposed coronavirus concerns – so applying for a court order has been the only available mechanism to deal with the contact arrangements.”
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