Recognising that separated parents are in desperate need of guidance about how to manage custody arrangements as restrictions on daily life increase as a result of COVID-19, the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court have now released guidance about complying with parenting orders.
The Family Court advises as follows
1. Parents should continue to act in the best interests of their children, to ensure their wellbeing and safety. This may mean different things, for different families.
2. The Court still expects parents to comply with Court orders, including ensuring children spend time with both parents as per those orders.
3. The Court recognises, however, that these unusual times will result in some situations where strict compliance with Orders is not possible – for example, changeovers may need to be moved, or, due to exposure to COVID-19, it may not be safe for a child to move from on house to another. Additionally, border closures may, in some cases, cause issues with compliance with orders, particularly over the upcoming school holiday period.
4. The Court emphasises the need to communicate with the other parent (if it is safe to do so) to try to find sensible and reasonable solutions, where Orders cannot be strictly complied with. Parents should try to be understanding of any vulnerabilities of members of the other parent’s household, when trying to reach agreement.
5. If new agreements are reached – document them! This can be by text, WhatsApp, WeChat, or email. The Court has emphasised that this will be extremely useful, if a judge has to later determine an issue arising from the change of arrangements.
6. The Family Relationships Advice Line remains open – parents are able to call on 1800 050 321 to discuss issues about parenting arrangements, and can also try to help parents reach an agreement through their telephone Family Dispute Resolution Service.
7. Parents are also reminded that family lawyers remain able to advise and assist – many family law mediators have now moved to online or phone mediations, and are generally able to do so in a relatively short timeframe.
8. If parents can’t reach agreement – or where there are real concerns about the safety of the children and/or a parent if there is a change in the arrangements – the Courts continue to be open to hear urgent matters electronically.
9. Family violence, including threats of violence, are never acceptable. If you or your child have been threatened, or are in immediate danger, you should contact the police.
10. The Court has emphasised that parents need to keep children safe if arrangements are in dispute – and should facilitate electronic communications between children and the parent they are not living with, until the dispute is resolved.
Based on this, COVID-19 in and of itself is still not a reason not to comply with Court Orders. However, the Court has emphasised that if parents act reasonably, or have a reasonable excuse for not complying with Orders, then this can be taken into account if there are any later allegations that Orders have been breached.
Parents who are concerned about this should ensure they keep written records of discussions about changing arrangements, and should seek their own legal advice if they are unsure about their individual circumstances.
The Court remains open to deal with urgent parenting matters at this time, although parents should expect that most judges will be hearing cases by phone, or by videoconference.
The matters contained in this article are the opinion of the writer by way of general information and are not legal advice. You should seek legal advice in relation to your personal circumstances before acting on any of the matters raised in this article.
Monique Robb is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law. She is Special Counsel in the Family and Relationship Law team at Lander & Rogers, which has the largest family law practice in Australia. Monique has worked solely in the area of Family Law since 2007, including working as an Associate in the Federal Circuit Court. Monique acts in matters in all areas of family law, including parenting (custody) matters, property matters, child support, financial agreements, asset protection and matters where one, or both parties, reside overseas. For more information, contact Monique by email or at +61 2 8020 7879