The world has changed unrecognisably in the past few weeks. Whilst the National Health Service awaits an unprecedented, relentless onslaught and car manufacturers turn their hands to ventilators, international families are feeling the immediate impact of the government’s measures to slow the spread of coronavirus and ‘flatten the curve’.
As specialists in international family cases, the family team at Penningtons Manches Cooper have advised many clients and supported them in their applications to relocate: often to return home, live with a new partner or to take up a job opportunity. It is the legal position that, if a parent wishes to move abroad with their child, they must either seek the agreement of the other parent or ask permission from the court. If it is necessary for the court to become involved, a judge makes the decision as to whether to allow relocation based on the best interests of the child. Success will usually be predicated on the applicant proposing, and the court accepting, a robust and credible plan for frequent and regular contact with the left behind parent to be maintained across the distance.
At the time of writing, it remains possible to travel in and out of the UK but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have advised against all but ‘essential travel’ on a worldwide basis. Essential travel is left to be defined by the travelling individual, but every parent (and child) would naturally assume that ‘essential travel’ would include travel to spend time together. However, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have warned that borders could close without notice and that travel infrastructure is being reduced because of falling demand. There will therefore need to be careful consideration as to the timing of any relocation application, and the shorter as well as longer-term proposals for the time with which children spend with each parent will need to be put forward in any relocation case which is currently ongoing.
For those who are considering making an application to relocate, their chances of success may be significantly impacted by the current restrictions, particularly given that the timescale of the crisis is unknown. Applicants will need to be more reliant on video calls, phone calls and post (for so long as the postal service continues) and be more innovative when presenting their case to the court. Legal advice should be sought in terms of the proposals to promote and support parent-child relationships so that an application has the greatest prospect of success.
For those already living apart and co-parenting, the Public Health England social distancing advice, government restrictions (which are likely to escalate) and new working arrangements (particularly for key workers), are likely to mean that arrangements agreed in more ‘normal’ times for children to live with and spend time with each parent simply cannot work during the crisis.
Parents faced with these issues should try to amend the arrangements between themselves to ensure that their families’ health is protected and children can spend time with both of their parents.
However, if this is not possible, the courts are open for business, but it must be noted that they are operating in uncharted territory and are adjusting to conducting a much greater proportion of their hearings remotely. Where possible, any court appointments will take place by telephone or videolink and lawyers, most of whom are well equipped to work from home, can advise clients over webcam. It remains possible for urgent hearings to take place or for applications to make changes to a current children order in light of these challenging circumstances.
Another option which may mean that a change to the usual arrangements can be reached swiftly and with less cost may be to engage the services of a mediator to act as a neutral third party to help parents reach agreement. The team at Penningtons Manches Cooper have experienced mediators in the department who can discuss the options with you, and all mediators within the practice are able to mediate over webcam.
Whatever arrangements are made – whether between the parents or by a third party - the main focus should be on following government advice to keep families and wider society as safe as possible. Any temporary change to the time and way that children spend time with their parents needs to be made in the best interests of the children to support their emotional wellbeing in incredibly challenging circumstances.