The judge in question was none other than Sir James Munby, then former President of the Family Division of the High Court, writes Louise Barretto, Head of our Family team.
Our most senior Family court judge in England and Wales, was once asked to rule on a disagreement about the length of a boy’s hair. He said the boy’s father ‘wanted a crew cut’ and the mother ‘more flowing locks’.
A similar story was reported here more recently when Judge Stephen Wildblood was asked to decide at which junction of the M4 motorway a separated couple should meet to hand over their child, and about how contact should be arranged with a parent on a Sunday afternoon.
Understandably he expressed concerns about not wasting valuable court time.
The courts around England and Wales are struggling to overcome the backing up of cases, which have not been able to be heard because of the pandemic but this would be unforgivable even at the best of times.
The government’s Covid-19 three tier alerts impose particular challenges for families going through divorce or separation as well as for the children of separated parents.
There are stresses and strains for all families being cooped up in the same home all day. For families where divorce proceedings may have started and are having to remain living under the same roof, there will be particular pressure. There is no longer the ability to spend most of the day apart at work and you cannot go out for a few hours to escape your spouse or partner.
It will be difficult.
If there are particular issues that cannot be resolved in direct discussion, then mediation can usually help. Mediation does not have to look at wholesale changes but can be used to deal with discrete issues.
There are several other services available to assist separated parents, arbitration should also be considered before rather resorting to the courts.
Children of separated parents
Try to sit down and work out basic ground rules. It may be as simple as agreeing who is going to go to the supermarket, who uses which rooms and if things are really difficult, you may need a timetable as to which hours each of you may use a particular room, if you have to keep out of one another’s way to stop tempers fraying. Counselling may help and this can be done by video link. If there are particular issues that need to be resolved which a counsellor cannot deal with, then consider mediation, again by video link.
The lockdown does not mean that children of separated parents cannot continue to see each parent and arrangements need to continue as normal as much as possible. Some arrangements may need to be adapted so that periods spent with each parent are a little longer. Short periods such as midweek contact may no longer be appropriate. If arrangements are changed, children need to be told so they know what the changes are and to have consistency.
Separated parents should try to encourage as much remote contact as possible: Skype, FaceTime, etc. Children now, more than ever, need to be reassured by both parents that all is going to be well.
It is going to be very difficult for some children. Young children will struggle to follow what is going on and teenagers will have their own issues. Separated parents need to stand together, figuratively if not literally, if problems arise.
Whilst accommodating the government’s three tier Covid alert systems common sense needs to prevail too, to limit the possibility of contamination across two households. If someone in one household is unwell, then the government’s guidelines must be followed, and the household has to self-isolate. Any missed time should be made up later by agreement.
Courts more than ever must be a last resort
The message from the judiciary is that where there is a court order in place and Coronavirus restrictions cause the letter of an order to be varied, the spirit of the order should be delivered by making safe alternative arrangements for the child.
Family lawyers like everyone else have not seen a situation like this before, but we are used to dealing with many difficult situations and can help. We are here for telephone calls and Skype meetings to provide advice, reassurance and to offer pragmatic solutions.
The court system continues to operate but has been thrust into a brave new world of remote hearings by video conferencing and conference calls.
Our Family lawyers have the knowledge and experience to guide you through these challenging times and have rankings in both Chambers & Partners and the Legal 500 for their expertise.
The above is accurate as at 15 October 2020. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.