How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting family law? Your questions answered.
On 24th March, Head of our Family Law team Kevan Hankinson, gave an update on how the department was adapting to the almost daily changes to day to day life. Two weeks in to lock down, Kevan provides answers to some questions being commonly asked of our Family Law team.
” How does the current situation affect me if I am concerned about domestic abuse? “
The current lockdown provisions have meant additional stress and worry for many people already dealing with relationship breakdown, and having to stay at home if relationships are strained and with additional concerns about health and loved ones is affecting many families.
Relate have put together some helpful advice about keeping relationships healthy during the current restrictions, which can be found here https://www.relate.org.uk/relationship-help/covid-19-advice-and-information
For some people however, there will be very serious concerns about abusive behaviour, and it is important to acknowledge that whilst the risks posed by the coronavirus are very real, they have to be judged alongside other problems and that it is important to stay safe.
There are options if you are suffering abusive behaviour and the services that offer protection and support are still there. The Police are still available as an emergency service, and you should call 999 if you fear for your safety or that of your family. Charities that support victims of abuse are still providing help as best they can, for example the National Domestic Abuse Helpline: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/
The courts are still functioning, and will prioritise applications for emergency orders, such as Occupation Orders that can regulate who can live in a particular property. If there are concerns about abuse you can still speak to a solicitor to get advice and take action if you need to protect yourself or your children during the current crisis.
“Can I still get divorced or separated?”
A: It may well be that for some, the issues around the breakdown of a relationship will (in whole or in part) best be dealt with after the current outbreak has passed. However, it is still possible to get advice and to make arrangements to separate, and put in place temporary or permanent measures to deal with separation.
The courts are still accepting divorce applications and you can still issue proceedings or discuss and agree separation plans, albeit that things will be slower than normal. Many mediation services are continuing to offer video facilities to discuss and hopefully reach arrangements if a separation needs to be discussed. Solicitors are still available to give advice by telephone or video conference if you want to discuss a separation or divorce.
It is not a cheerful thought, but if you are married to someone and separated, they remain in law the person expected to look after you if you are ill, or inherit if you pass away, or to benefit from pensions or other investments. The normal advice to ensure that you have an up to date Will that reflects your wishes is even more relevant if it may be some time before the legal aspects of your separation are concluded.
“How do the current restrictions affect arrangements for my children?”
A: There are several organisations offering help and support to parents in dealing with the coronavirus restrictions and the problems it might cause, for example:
National Family Mediation
CAFCASS (the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service)
The government has also issued guidance that, as long as no one in the household has symptoms of coronavirus, children can move between households.
However, on the 24th March, Sir Andrew McFarlane, the most senior family Judge in England and Wales, issued further advice.
He states that just because children can move between households doesn’t mean that they must, and he hopes that parents will be able to enter into sensible discussions about how they will plan to deal with the current restrictions.
The advice notes that some parents may be more worried than others, and that conflicts may develop. The court, if asked at some point in future to look at what has happened, will ask whether the parents behaved reasonably. In particular, they will want to see that the general spirit or intention of an arrangement is respected, so where a parent cannot see the children face to face, every effort is made to ensure they keep in touch via telephone, messaging and video communication like FaceTime, Skype or Zoom.
The guidance asks parents to think carefully about the health needs of children and others in each household. It could be very different if a parent is not visiting anyone other than the children, than if they are working and seeing many vulnerable people as part of their day to day routine.
The best approach if you can do it constructively is to talk and communicate fairly and helpfully where you can, and wherever possible and safe, not to let the coronavirus outbreak cause a child to lose touch with a parent. However for some people the situation will be difficult and discussions may become abusive or make things worse, in which case other options like mediators or solicitors might be needed to deal with problems more at arm’s length and help you set out the position and think about the best plan for your children.
Each case will be judged on its own circumstances and you can discuss the matter with a solicitor if you are unsure. The courts are clear however that they will not be impressed by anyone exploiting the current situation.
“How will the current situation affect the financial aspects of a separation?”
A: The picture is complex and will affect different cases in different ways.
The courts are prioritising urgent matters only at the moment, and many finances cases may not be seen as urgent in the current crisis.
Options like mediation are still there, and even private Financial Dispute Resolution appointments (where the lawyers and the clients arrange for discussions other than through the court) can be set up.
There will be some cases where the position is simple, or where resources are being divided in such a way that any risks the current instability might raise are shared equally, and matters can still be finalised.
The decision on whether to hang fire in dealing with finances, or press on with discussions now is not an easy one and will vary enormously from case to case. It will be crucial to get legal and financial advice tailored to your circumstances.
At the moment the ability to value or market property is severely curtailed and most estate agents or surveyors are not taking instructions. Government advice is that all conveyancing should be put on hold where possible. The impact on house prices of the outbreak remains to be seen and in the short term at least may depend upon the success of Government plans to stabilise the economy once the lockdown period ends.
The stock markets have been volatile, and discussions around pension assets may be hard to finalise. Final salary schemes will be affected differently than other types of pension, and it may be necessary to get some detailed advice from a specialist pensions advisor.
When the court looks at finances, it does try to take into account what the future might hold for the parties and any children they might have. Questions about future income or earning capacity or the viability of a family business will now be more difficult to answer.
For cases where a final resolution is not available or appropriate until the coronavirus outbreak has passed, there will still be important temporary measures to consider. Help with mortgages, and other financial assistance may be required and any party who does not sensibly help to get past current problems or tries to exploit them for their advantage may face significant criticism or financial penalties when the courts finally do get to look at the situation later, so it will be important to be as constructive as possible.
In line with Government guidelines, our Family Law Team are operating remotely but they remain available for advice and guidance on any existing or new matter. Please do not hesitate to get in touch via either firstname.lastname@example.org or directly with your legal adviser. See https://www.butcher-barlow.co.uk/our-people/ for contact telephone numbers.
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