As lives everywhere are on hold and, tragically, far too many are still being lost, the ‘old normal’ is fast becoming a distant memory.
But COVID-19 hasn’t changed everything. Families are experiencing tensions, disagreements, difficult relationships just as they did pre-pandemic. Some couples will put this down to the pressures of lockdown. Others may be considering separation or divorce. And some who had taken that decision pre-pandemic may be worried that they’ll be stuck in limbo – perhaps even still living with their partner – for quite some time to come.
The positive news is that Family Law solicitors like me, and the Family Courts, are still up and running and able to help. Our methods may have had to adapt, but most issues can still be dealt with. Telephone meetings/hearings and video conferencing are proving to be effective ways of addressing issues within families, whether they relate to separation, arrangements for children, financial provision, or even domestic abuse.
If my current workload is anything to go by, many families are struggling with financial and practical arrangements that had been put in place by the courts before COVID-19 took hold. I have seen a significant rise in the number of enquiries about maintenance payments, both from those responsible for making and those receiving payments. In particular, people who have experienced a drop in income because of furlough, redundancy, workplace closure, or a slowdown in work are worried that they will be in trouble if they breach a court order by not making the maintenance payments that they cannot now afford.
If that’s you, don’t panic. You could, as a first step, speak with your former partner and try to agree a different arrangement for the time being. If that fails, you could ask the court to consider making a new order varying the previous periodical payments order. Those types of hearings are fairly easily conducted by telephone.
Another common issue clients are asking me to help with is contact with children. Parents who are no longer together will each want their child to spend time with them, just as they usually would. But the idea of children moving between two different households during this pandemic continues to cause problems within separated families. Perhaps one parent thinks the other is not taking lockdown rules seriously enough or will not adequately support their child’s mental wellbeing. Or maybe there are issues around a relative’s vulnerability because of an underlying health condition; should a child be kept in one household to minimise the risk of transmission? These are all things that I have helped clients work through in recent weeks.
And then there are separations. I’m being asked about the ins and outs of divorce very regularly at the moment. People want to know what divorce would mean for them, and whether it would be worth starting the legal process while everything is so disrupted and uncertain.
Technology is enabling things to continue – not quite as normal, but as best as possible. Family mediations are going ahead, helping couples work through the arrangements that need to be in place post-divorce. Having mediated regularly over the last few weeks, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how effective ‘remote mediations’ can be. While mediation is ideally a face-to-face exercise that allows the mediator to engage with both clients and discuss at length their situation and work towards reaching an understanding about how to move forward, it seems the process can also be undertaken via video conferencing. The mediator may not be able to pick up on signals or body language quite as well, nor is there as much scope for former couples to build bridges by being brought together under one roof. However, it can work. And some clients have told me that they were glad to have had that degree of separation from their ex while at the same time working with them towards a consensus.
There has been no grinding to a halt of divorces or financial remedy orders either; the courts are processing these, and they can also be filed online. Court hearings, too, are going ahead – usually by telephone. So, if you need the court services in any Family Law situation, you can still request it.
This may be of some comfort if you find yourself in difficult domestic circumstances. Of course there are degrees of severity and a huge range of possible scenarios that are challenging people at this time. If you are in danger because of physical or mental abuse, you must act. If you and your children are struggling financially while your former partner refuses to meet their obligations, do take legal advice. Your Family Law solicitor will be able to talk you through your options. Some situations will call for a swift referral to the courts. In others, mediation or collaborative law (another way of resolving issues without involving the courts) could be worth exploring.
And then there are situations in which there is a choice to be made between taking a hard line and being a little bit flexible when you can see that your ex is under real pressure – something that I seem to be helping lots of clients work through at the moment, especially when it comes to money issues. I think that, now more than ever, it’s a case of picking your battles. This pandemic won’t last forever, and (if the circumstances are right) pulling together could be a good move for now and for the future.