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Parenting Orders in the age of Covid

Co-parenting children can be stressful for parents and children as it is. However, in the age of Covid-19, these stresses can be increased due to any restrictions enforced as a result of lockdown periods.

Parents understandably are deeply concerned about their children’s safety and the safety of themselves. Part of the concern that parents are currently facing is their ability to comply with parenting orders and what should be expected of them by the Courts in these unprecedented times.

The Honorable William Alstergren confirmed in his statement dated 26 March 2020 that the Courts remain open to assist parties and provide parents with some general guidance in relation to adhering to parenting orders. However, it is noted each family’s circumstances are different.

At Access Law Group, we are here to assist and support you through these trying times. To assist parents in adhering to their co-parenting responsibilities, we have provided the below outline of the Honorable William Alstergren’s statement:

1. It is imperative that parents and carers act in the best interests of their children. This includes ensuring the children’s safety and wellbeing.

2. Parents and carers must remain consistent with their responsibilities to act in the children’s best interests. This means that parents and carers are expected to comply with court orders in relation to parenting arrangements.

3. However, in these new and strange times, strict compliance with current orders can be very difficult, if not, impossible. It may be that contact with a parent usually occurs at a designated contact centre, which may not currently be operating due to Covid-19. Or, perhaps the pickup location of a child may nominate a particular premises or school which may now be closed. Many state borders are also closed or require exemptions in order to enter and exit those states. There may also be genuinely safety concerns that have arisen in circumstances where one parent or carer, or someone in close contact with that parent, has been exposed to Covid-19 and may restrict the safe movement of a child from one house to another.

4. As a first step, and only if it is safe to do so, parties should try to best communicate with one another about their ability to comply with current parenting orders and they should attempt to find a practical solution to these difficulties. These solutions should be considered sensibly and reasonably always with the best interest of the child in mind.

5. If an agreement can be reached about new parenting arrangements, even if they are to be adjusted for only a short period of time, this agreement should ideally be in writing. This can include being by way of email, text message, or other communication platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger between the parties. This is particularly important if a Family Law Hearing takes place at a later date. This will assist all concerned including the Court to understand what agreement may have been reached.

6. Parents and carers can also mediate their differences through lawyers. At Access Law Group, we have a number of highly skilled lawyers with many years of experience in the field of Family Law to assist parents in navigating these trying times. We also have numerous conference rooms available for mediations to take place, including shuttle mediations if the parties prefer to remain separated. Mediation can also occur via telephone or video conference such as Microsoft Teams.

7. If an agreement has been reached between the parties and consent orders have been developed to outline new or varied parenting orders, consent order applications can be filed electronically with the court. This process is quick and usually conducted without the need for a Court appearance. Agreements can also be documented in a non-legally binding parenting plan.

8. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement to vary the arrangement or if it is unsafe to do so, and one or both parties continue to have real concerns, the parties may approach the Court electronically and seek a variation of the orders.

9. Where no agreement is reached between the parties, the children should be kept safe until the dispute can be resolved. The Courts urge that during any period of dispute, parents and carers should ensure that each parent or carer continues to have the same contact with the children, consistent with the parenting arrangements. This can include video conferencing, social media, and telephone contact.

10. At all times, parents and carers must act reasonably.

11. Even if the orders cannot be strictly adhered to and are varied by the parties, the parties must ensure that the purpose or spirit of the orders are respected when considering altering arrangements and that they act in the best interests of the children.

The Courts understand the toll that Covid-19 has taken on families going through a separation. To deal with urgent family law disputes that have arisen as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Courts have created the ‘Covid-19 List’.

To be eligible for the Covid-19 List, you must satisfy all of the following criteria:

i) Your application must be filed as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, or has a significant connection to the Covid-19 pandemic

ii) The matter is urgent

iii) The application is accompanied with an Affidavit which addresses all of the required criteria for the Covid-19 List

iv) You have made reasonable attempts to resolve the dispute but were unsuccessful

v) The matter can be dealt with electronically (i.e. telephone or videoconferencing). Matters that fulfil the above criteria are able to be heard much quicker.

If you or your family have been impacted by Covid-19 or if you need assistance in relation to a Family Law matter, contact Access Law Group on 02 4220 7100 or email [email protected]