The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has had far-reaching implications in all areas of life. Not least in the lives of children. Children have had home schooling separated from their friends and normal life over a long period of time and even with current technology they were disconnected from their usual lives and their activities were limited on a daily basis. Fortunately, the ease in lockdown has improved matters for them in some way until we can return to normal as a whole society.
For those children who have separated parents, the difficulties have been even greater if their parents cannot agree on what arrangements should be made for them to spend time with each one. The ability for children to spend time with the parent that they do not live with has been one of the exemptions from lockdown rules demonstrating that the government has recognised the importance of this for children’s welfare needs and mental health.
When the pandemic broke this exemption was not in place and there were many arguments between parents refusing to allow children to spend time with the other even when a court order was in place. Many urgent applications took place in order to enforce existing arrangements and fresh applications took place where one parent had unilaterally withdrawn from agreed contact. This has caused many difficulties with the court and has had a massive impact on the ground. Different parents take different views as to how the pandemic should be approached and some parents took advantage of the pandemic as an excuse to prevent contact. In these circumstances, the court has had to step in to enforce and promote contact.
With the courts working remotely as much as possible there have been difficulties in accessing this decision-making as quickly as professionals would like. Not only that, when any case starts within the family court a safeguarding letter has to be prepared first by Cafcass to confirm if there are any urgent issues that the court needs to be aware of by making enquiries with the police and social services. Cafcass have been unable to cope with the demand over the pandemic and whereas these letters used to be available within a 21 day period they will now take a couple of months at least.
Cafcass are so overwhelmed that they have had to implement emergency measures to try to provide a service. Where they would usually undertake face to face meetings they were conducting these by telephone or FaceTime. This included interviews with children. There are many difficulties in trying to obtain information from children remotely when they are in the same household with the parent who is preventing contact. Fortunately, Cafcass are trying to work back to face to face meetings with children wherever possible.
These delays mean that it is very difficult for us to give clients any time estimate as to when their case will be decided or when they may see their children. This is particularly distressing for the parent not seeing their child.
Locally, the courts in Stafford and Stoke have implemented a process where the Judge will make as many case management decisions as possible without the involvement of the parties to try to move cases along. Initial hearings where we might obtain directions may not take place and the Judge will make them themselves. Unfortunately, the delay is still enormous.
It is difficult to know when the courts will be able to operate at their previous level and whether in fact they will do so. There are advantages of some hearings taking place remotely although in the last hearing that I did I wished that the judge had listened to her own guidance to ensure that she was in a quiet room so that we didn't have to keep listening to her dog barking! The cost to the clients are in fact reduced by remote hearings as there is no travelling and less time is spent but there are massive disadvantages in not being able to negotiate with the other side face to face and the Judge not being able to make decisions based upon the presentation of the parties. Disingenuous parties have been playing the system.
Every child has the right to spend time with the parent that they do not live with so long as it is safe and that still stands even in the face of a global pandemic. We are fortunate that children are not particularly vulnerable to this virus but they remain vulnerable to the actions of their parents. Unfortunately, that is not a virus that we can fight against. All we can do is to continue to strive to achieve the best outcomes for the children and the clients.
Author: Jeanette Birch