COVID19 lock down & separated parent access arrangements

COVID19 lock down & separated parent access arrangements

COVID19 children

Last night after the Federal Cabinet meeting finished at around 9pm, our Government announced more changes to increase restrictions on the public’s movements and further limit what “non-essential” businesses must now cease trading, as part of efforts to slow spread of the COVID19 virus.

The advice we are getting and why some activities are now prohibited (but not others), is confusing, and leaves room for disagreements about what it all means.

For example, schools are still open, and parents are being told it is safe to send their children. However, schools are asking parents to keep their children at home, if possible.

School closures

No-one has mentioned the situation with day-care for 0-5s, or talked about risks to them, but for anyone with children this age, anecdotally, many of the centres are now emptying out.

For the moment, these services remain open and it is up to parents to decide whether to send children, or not.

School holiday trips cancelled

School holidays cancelled

Travel is also now a complicated issue, and with school holidays on the horizon, this issue is one that many separated parents are understandably concerned about.

With many states closing their borders, the clear take-home message from authorities is that we should not be travelling anywhere outside of our local area. This includes for holidays.

Commonwealth Health Information

Department of Health

With so much uncertainty, it is important to rely on accurate information.

The Commonwealth Government has a website with up-to-date information that you can look to here:

Separated Parent Communication

Separated parents

These changes affect everyone, but present particular challenges for single parents who may have real difficulties communicating with their ex-spouses to talk through decisions about their children – such as changing arrangements for pick-ups/drop-offs that may need to be made in a hurry.

Many separated parents rely on email or text to communicate. This may be because there are ongoing issues with Family Violence (or allegations about this), or because their former partner/spouse is unreasonable, or because they have been advised by their lawyers to do so.

All of these reasons may create opportunities for significant misunderstandings and further conflict.

Coronavirus shared parenting

If there are family violence orders in place as well, this adds yet another layer of complexity.

In addition, the rapidly-changing situation with COVID19 means agreements about children made one day, may need to be changed the next.

How to deal with child access & changeovers during Coronavirus changes

Compromises on access may be made

1. Follow Court Orders

The first port of call is to make sure you are following any Family or Federal Circuit Court Orders about communication with the other parent.
Unless there has been a fresh agreement and new Orders are changed, your obligations under those Orders still apply.

Contravention of Orders

Breaching them may make conflict with the other party worse, and/or expose you to a Court Application in the future for Contravention of Orders.
If a question of breaching Orders comes up, and you aren’t sure what to do, you may need to get some legal advice by phone. Free options include Legal Aid, Community Legal Centres, or LawAccess, if you do not have access to a private family lawyer.

2. Compromise with your co-parent

Talking on the phone co-parenting

If circumstances allow, and you are not going to be breaching Court Orders, an AVO, or putting yourself or your children at risk, you could try talking on the phone or in person (not in front of the children or when they can hear) to your former partner/spouse about these decisions.
If a reasonable compromise can be reached, that will be the best, quickest and cheapest way to solve the problem.

3. Try emailing with a follow-up text message 

Try communicating via email with your ex

Email the other parent. Even though email is slow, take the time to set out your concerns, and your proposals to solve them.
A short, polite text-message to let the other parent know you have emailed them and are hoping they can reply quickly will flag that there is something that needs their attention.
Remember too, only genuinely urgent issues should be called “urgent.

4. Arrange telephone mediation 

Phone mediation

If there are major issues that need to be discussed – such as home isolation or treatment of a child, or children who has significant medical vulnerabilities, or becomes ill and it is not a medical emergency, and none of the above are options, then telephone mediation may be a solution.
Many publicly funded services may not be able to offer access to services as quickly as people need, but there many private mediators (or Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners) that specialize in family/parenting disputes who can offer telephone services to help bridge communication gaps.
Mediators are also cheaper than lawyers! A good family lawyer can refer you to a reputable private mediator, or you can rely on your own enquiries to find someone you are happy with.
Child custody

5. Vary Court Orders using a Parenting Plan

If new agreements are reached with the help of a mediator in a crisis situation, or to deal with unusual circumstances that have come up, it is possible to vary Court Orders using a Parenting Plan.
You should get legal advice from a lawyer about doing this, so that you are aware of the risks and benefits.

6. Use a co-parenting App

Shared parenting apps
There are also now some very good communication Apps available for separated parents that are designed to streamline communication and make planning and information-sharing easier. If you haven’t looked at these before, perhaps consider if they may help now.

Navigating Coronavirus & shared parenting

Mother and Son

Although many separated parents may feel overwhelmed by the decisions that need to be made now and in the coming weeks, parents will need to find flexible solutions to deal with our changing circumstances.

Now, more than ever, cooperation where possible, and good communication about children’s health, safety and wellbeing is required.

If it is not possible to resolve communication issues, or the welfare of children is at risk and you need the advice of a lawyer, or to approach a Court for urgent Orders, changes and limitations on access to Court services in response to COVID19 are likely to create some delays.

Getting advice earlier, rather than waiting until you are in crisis in such circumstances may mean there is more time to find solutions, with the support and guidance of a lawyer.

The contents of this publication are the opinion of the writer, do not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied upon as legal advice. You should seek formal legal advice from a lawyer in relation to your personal circumstances before making decisions on the issues raised in this publication.

Celia Oosterhoff is a Partner at Pigott Stinson in the Sydney CBD. She is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law, a Registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, trained Collaborative Lawyer, and is also on the Legal Aid Panel of Independent Children’s Lawyers,to represent the interests of vulnerable children in matters before the Family and Federal Circuit Courts. Celia’s experience includes over 12 years exclusive practice as a Family Lawyer in boutique and broader service small and medium-sized city and suburban practices, international commercial experience, and two years as Research Associate to a Judge of the Appeal Division of the Family Court. For more information, contact Celia by email or phone at +61 2 8251 7777.


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