When the coronavirus lockdown was enforced, many separated and divorced parents had no choice but to be more flexible with their child arrangements to ensure their child was safe, as well as to protect the wellbeing of family members and other people their child came into contact with.
Now, as lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted, parents may disagree about the altered arrangements, especially if the child is now seeing one parent a lot less than they were before lockdown.
If your current arrangements are no longer working or you cannot agree about whether to return to your pre-lockdown agreement, you may need to go back to the drawing board and renegotiate your plans to suit both you and your ex-partner. Here are some of the main things you should consider.
Act in the best interest of your child
It’s likely that issues around child arrangements will arise if one parent does not want their child to spend time with the other, or if they are using COVID-19 as an excuse to stop contact between their child and the other parent. In situations like this, emotions can run high, however it is vital that you keep your child’s best interest at the centre of any decisions and put your own feelings to one side, despite any hostility between you and your ex-partner.
You must remain focused on co-parenting as well as you can and should work with your ex-partner to create a practical and sensible solution that will provide the best outcome for your child.
Reflect on your pre-lockdown arrangements
If either you or your ex-partner are not happy to return to your pre-lockdown child arrangements, you should discuss why this is the case and why it no longer works. Make sure you conduct this conversation in a calm and sensible manner, whilst always putting your child’s needs before your own. Remember that in most cases, it is thought to be in the best interest of the children to have a good relationship with both parents.
If you manage to reach a new agreement that you are both happy with, you do not have to do any official paperwork if there was no court order in place prior to the change. However, if you would like to make your agreement legally binding, you can get an experienced family lawyer to draft a ‘consent order’. This is a legal document that confirms the agreement and can include details about how you will look after your child, where they will live and when they will spend time with each parent, as well as which other types of contact will take place and when. You and your ex-partner will both need to sign the draft consent order and fill in a C100 court form, which your lawyer can help with. If there was a Child Arrangements Order in place, it is important to formally vary this and send the new arrangements to the court in the form of a ‘consent order. u
There is usually no court hearing for a consent order. Instead, a judge will approve your order so it is legally binding, as long as the decision made is deemed to be in the best interest of your child . If the judge does not think the consent order is in your child’s best interest, they can change it or make a different court order to decide what is best for your child.
If you cannot agree
This period of change post-lockdown may be difficult for children with separated parents, so it is more important than ever for parents to work collaboratively and minimise disputes. However, in certain circumstances, it may not be possible for parents to reach an agreement on their own.
If you are struggling to settle on a new agreement with your ex-partner, or communication has completely broken down, it is a good idea to keep a record of the times you have reached out to them to discuss arrangements, or instances where your ex-partner has not stuck to the agreements made. By doing so, you have evidence if you do need to go to court and are asked to demonstrate why the current arrangement isn’t working.
That said, it is always recommended to try mediation before taking your matter to court. Often, it can be cheaper and a lot quicker, meaning you can get your new arrangements agreed and enforced without delay. Mediation will also allow you to discuss your child arrangements openly and come to an agreement that works for both of you. Having an external party involved encourages a calmer and more controlled conversation that stays on track and focuses on the real matter at hand – what is best for your child.
Making an application to the court
If mediation does not work, or your ex-partner goes against the agreed arrangements that were finalised via mediation, you can make an application to the court. A court hearing will take place to determine if there is still a chance you can reach an agreement with your ex-partner. If you do end up agreeing on a plan during this hearing, the judge will end the process and write a consent order detailing the terms.
If you still cannot agree, the judge may take one of many routes depending on your individual case. They may write a court order if they believe you can both resolve the issues you disagree on, or they may choose to put your case on hold and make directions to acquire more information to decide what is in the child’s best interest.
If directions have been made, a new date will be set for the next hearing. If you and your ex-partner come to an agreement before this date, you will can set these out in a consent order and request a judge approved the consent order. A further hearing might be required to look at all the information collected to formulate an agreement that not only works for both parents, but also is best for the child. This agreement is legally binding, meaning if either parent breaches the agreed terms, they may face prosecution.
If you and your ex-partner are struggling to renegotiate child arrangements post-lockdown, you should speak to an experienced legal advisor at the earliest opportunity. They will be able to assess the situation and advise you on the best course of action, as well as explore an application to the court if necessary.
About the author
Lucinda is Partner and the Head of the Family and Divorce team. She is an expert in her field with particular expertise in dissolution, divorce and separation and the associated financial issues and children matters that might occur as a result of the breakdown of a relationship. Lucinda is an accredited mediator, and has been practicing since 2011.
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