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The current Coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly having an effect on each and every one of us, both in the context of our working lives and our family lives.

Last week the Government issued guidance as to what we all should and shouldn’t be doing to keep both ourselves and our families’ safe during this outbreak.  Many parents are trying to work out suitable arrangements for what is right and in the best interests of their children with the likes of home schooling one of the many considerations.  Additionally for separated parents, where their children were ordinarily moving between two households, whether by agreement or court ordered arrangement, one question for them will be how such contact between a child and the other parent can operate safely in the current circumstances.

Initially, the Government guidance that it is not permitted for a person, including a child, to be outside their home for any purpose other than shopping for essentials, exercise or medical reasons, understandably left many separated parents concerned as to what that meant for them and their children.  Thankfully the Government soon clarified and it has since been confirmed that children under 18 years old whose parents are separated are able to go from one parent’s home to the others. 

Accordingly, where there are agreed or court ordered arrangements for children, parents should adhere to those arrangements as far as possible and as far as is sensible to do so.  Parents will be required to act responsibly having regard to Government guidance. In a situation where either parent, child or a member of either household develops symptoms consistent with Coronavirus, regard must be given to the guidelines and a sensible assessment of the circumstances is expected to be made and acted upon appropriately.  Communication between parents at this time is vitally important.  In the event that the usual form of contact cannot operate, consideration should be given to both parents supporting alternative methods of contact with the other such as telephone contact or the use of various apps such as Facetime or WhatsApp to name a few in order to maintain contact.

In the event that there are to be any changes to arrangements for children during this time, there is an expectation that parents should discuss and agree such changes responsibly.  Where there might be a formal written agreement or court order specifying when a parent is ordinarily to have contact with a child it is recommended that the parents document any agreed temporary changes in arrangement in writing eg whether by formal written agreement or at the very least record by way of exchange of email between the parties.  In the event that agreement cannot be reached and in circumstances where a parent has a genuine concern about the health of the child or other parent, that parent may vary the arrangement to one they consider to be safe. It must be noted however that if these actions are queried by the other parent and later raised in court, the court will likely consider whether the parents acted reasonably and sensibly in the circumstances and deal accordingly. 

The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service (SCTS) issued guidance on 27th March 2020 confirming that, at least for the Sheriffdom of Grampian, Highland and Islands, all civil business (other than quite specific urgent business) would be adjourned until August 2020 at the earliest.  This includes family cases and non-urgent child welfare hearings.  With this in mind the Lord President has issued further guidance on compliance with existing court orders which relate to children and parental rights and responsibilities.  It is recognised that this is a period of challenging and uncertain times and of course each case will inevitably differ however it is hoped that the issued guidance will be of assistance to separated parents who find themselves in this situation and assist them in complying with any relevant agreement or court order safely. A link to the guidance can be found here:  https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/coming-to-court/attending-a-court/coronavirus

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