It may only be November, but thoughts are already turning to Christmas, particularly in view of the current ‘lockdown 2.0’ and return of the tiered system from when lockdown should be lifted on 2 December 2020.
Every year, we receive an influx of enquiries from parents facing difficulties with arrangements over the festive period. This year, sorting out these arrangements as early as possible is likely to be more important than ever.
It has been accepted since ‘lockdown 1.0’ between March and June of this year that where children are part of a two-household family, i.e. if their parents live separately, they can move between those households and spend time with each parent without any rules being broken.
But, what steps should you be taking to address the arrangements for Christmas in 2020?
If you already have an existing Child Arrangements Order which sets out what the arrangements should be for the festive period, then those arrangements should be adhered to. If not, the order will have been breached and there is potential for the other parent to seek enforcement which can include financial penalties.
Where there is no court order but you have been navigating the tricky issue of Christmas contact for a while, you should look to continue as you have in previous years to provide stability and as ‘normal’ a Christmas as possible for the children in the circumstances. If you can’t agree what the arrangements should look like this year with the other parent, as maybe these have been fluid in the past, then you may benefit from some advice from one of our specialist lawyers.
If this is the first time you are having to think about splitting the children’s time over Christmas, it is going to be difficult for everyone involved, not least the children. Care should be taken to ensure they are not involved in disputes between their parents.
In a lot of cases, we would recommend mediation where there are issues about when children should spend time with each parent and for how long, particularly if those issues are very specific and relate only to the Christmas period. Mediators are currently operating remote services with mediation meetings taking place over video platforms, but this might not be suitable for all families. We can provide advice about the options available.
As we move to a tiered system in December, careful thought will need to be given to practical arrangements for handovers as well as the possible return of the ‘rule of 6’ and whether it is safe or possible for the children to see other members of their family. There may be also be exceptions to continuing contact where, for example, the child (or the other parent) is required to isolate due to either experiencing Covid symptoms or coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus, and in those circumstances alternative arrangements will need to be considered.
Whilst mediation and direction discussions are a good way to open up the conversation and keep it going, if it isn’t possible for you to agree matters early on you may need to consider whether a solicitors letter should be sent setting out the terms of the proposed contact, it may be possible to negotiate the arrangements through an exchange of correspondence and or private arbitration. If contact still cannot be agreed the last resort is an application to Court for a Child Arrangements Order, dealing specifically with the issue of Christmas contact.
The court encourages parties to try and resolve matters without recourse to court proceedings. Current pressure on court time means that it is difficult to secure hearing time, particularly now that hearings are conducted remotely over telephone and video platforms. Urgent application will be dealt with where the court considers it necessary, but parties must try and resolve their differences where possible through other avenues.