Published: 24 March 2020
Author: Samuel Fung
Co-parenting in the time of COVID-19 restrictions
In light of the recent updates regarding COVID-19, the following is a list of matters which parents who are going through separation should turn their minds to. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and will grow as the official health advice is updated.
1. General school-term time arrangements
Following the announcement by the Victorian state government on 22 March 2020, all schools in Victoria will have commenced school holidays today (Tuesday 24 March 2020). While there have not been any further announcements, at this stage it is anticipated that school holidays will conclude on the previously gazetted date, i.e. Monday 13 April 2020.
Parents who have arrangements that are bound by school terms and school holidays should take notice of these changed dates.
2. Time on special occasions
Given the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, it is uncertain at this stage as to how long social distancing policies and the closure of non-essential services/schools will last.
In anticipation, parents are encouraged to think ahead and develop contingency plans where necessary for specific occasions including:
- Easter (Friday 10 April to Monday 13 April)
- Anzac Day (Saturday 25 April)
- Mothers’ Day (Sunday 10 May)
- Eid al-Fitr (Saturday 23 May to Sunday 24 May)
- Eid al-Adha (Thursday 30 July to Monday 3 August)
- Fathers’ Day (Sunday 6 September)
- Any birthdays of the parents or the children which fall in the next 6 months
3. Telephone time/Skype time
In circumstances where face-to-face time is not viable due to health risks or self-isolation, we encourage parents to be more flexible as to arrangements regarding communication between the other parent and the children via telephone, FaceTime, Skype or other video-conferencing tools.
4. Changeover locations
We remind parents to decide with caution as to whether previously agreed changeover locations will still be practicable. If your changeover location is at a non-essential service/business, and it was chosen by you both specifically for its public nature, it will be sensible to check whether this location continues to serve its purpose.
5. Childcare centres and contact centres
Parents should check with their specific child care centres as soon as possible as to whether their service will be interrupted in the next few months.
6. Last minute changes to time or changeover arrangements
In the following months, it may be unavoidable that parents have to make last minute changes to agreements or plans. We encourage parents to be accommodating of these circumstances where reasonable, and to document all such requests and responses in writing in case it becomes necessary to refer to them in the future.
7. Communication between parents (general or medical emergencies)
It is important that parents continue to keep each other informed and updated as to any medical emergencies relating to the children. We remind parents that if there are parenting orders in place, any action to deliberately withhold such information may be deemed as a breach of court order.
If known, details of treating practitioners or family doctors whom the children consult should be exchanged between parents now, instead of when an emergency happens.
8. Work arrangements of a parent
As a general reminder, parenting arrangements in the following months may be highly dependent on the employment/study arrangements of each parent. In particular, where one parent has FIFO work, the COVID-19 outbreak may drastically affect work schedules and flights, therefore it is recommended that parents pre-empt any such possibility and discuss contingency plans.
If you have an appointment for an intake session or a joint session at a mediation service, you should contact the service as soon as possible to confirm whether these will still be able to proceed via telephone.
The upcoming months will be challenging for all parents involved. We encourage families going through separation to be accommodating where practicable and reasonable. At the end of the day, when discussing parenting arrangements, parents should keep at the forefront of their minds the main objective, which is to maintain stability while minimising risk and turbulence for all persons involved, including the children, the parents themselves, and elderly relatives.
If you are considering breaching a court order, changing existing parenting arrangements unilaterally or withholding children due to COVID-19, we remind you to have regard to the principle of best interests of the children. Before you decide, ask yourself whether your decision would definitely be seen by a judge to be reasonable in the circumstances. Any attempt to take advantage of the situation and to increase time with the children unreasonably may be open to criticism by the courts at a later point in time if a contravention application is filed.
While it is a real possibility that certain compromises will need to be made in order for arrangements to function, parents should be reminded that these trying times may also be an opportunity to develop and strengthen co-parenting with one another.
If you have a court proceeding on foot
All courts relevant to families going through separation at this stage, including the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and local Magistrates’ Courts, have now implemented social distancing practices.
In summary, most hearings are now to be conducted via telephone. Where a face-to-face hearing is deemed necessary, there are specific rules which limit the number of persons allowed to be present in a courtroom at any one time. In relation to other services or operations of the court, most of these will now be conducted via telephone or online. If an issue cannot be dealt with via an existing online portal, parties to a proceeding are encouraged to contact the court via email.
Court scheduling and waiting times may also be affected by COVID-19 to varying degrees.
In the past week, the courts have released updates almost every other day. For further updates, contact our Family and Relationships Law team or visit the court websites below: