COVID-19 has put extreme pressure on separated families. This is even more so when it comes to the parenting of children, and compliance with orders or legal agreements made prior to coronavirus entering our lives. The Federal Circuit Court and Family Court has released the below questions and answers to assist parents in this extremely difficult time.
We’ve also included the Law Council of Australia’s top 10 tips on navigating this difficult time, as these additional pressures and stresses due to the pandemic can be hard to accommodate and provoke anxiety in families.
Who can I speak to for more information and advice?
The Courts urge everyone to seek guidance and a great starting point is through the Family Relationships Advice Line. They can provide information, advice and telephone-based Family Dispute Resolution services to assist parents and carers to discuss any issues that arise and help them come to an agreement. The Family Relationships Advice Line can be contacted on 1800 050 321 or visit the website. The Courts’ registry services can be accessed remotely and can assist with telephone appointments, electronic filing and the listing of urgent cases. The National Enquiry Centre is the entry point for all family law enquires in the Courts and can help you to understand family law procedures and provide you with the right forms. The National Enquiry Centre’s phone number is 1300 352 000, however, we are currently experiencing a very high volume of calls. Please check the website for updates about Court operations
I am feeling concerned about my safety and my health – what should I do?
If you or your child is in immediate danger please contact your local police on 000. If you are concerned about you or your child’s health and wellbeing please contact your doctor. More information about how to self-assess for your personal risk for coronavirus (COVID-19) is available from the website of the Commonwealth Government. The Courts are prioritising urgent matters and those that concern the safety of children. Court hearings and events are currently being done by telephone or video-conferencing. The Courts’ registry services can be accessed remotely and can assist with telephone appointments, electronic filing and the listing of urgent cases, contact the Court using live chat or phone 1300 352 000. See Notice to the Profession – COVID-19 Measures and listing arrangements for more information.
Do I have to come to the court building to have my case dealt with?
Generally speaking, no. Only in exceptional circumstances, a small number of face-to-face in-court hearings may be required, at the request of the parties. For the safety of all concerned, these will only be granted when absolutely necessary. Those hearings will be conducted in strict accordance with the Face-to-face in-court Protocol issued by the Courts. As in any other interaction, social distancing requirements will be strictly followed.
I have an appointment with a family consultant, do I still have to go?
If the appointment was scheduled to take place in the registry, you will be contacted by the Family Consultant and an arrangement made to interview you and the other party by telephone or video. After these adult interviews are conducted the Family Consultant will then consider if the children will need to be seen, and if so how that is to occur. In some matters consideration will be given to interviewing older children remotely (ideally using video technology). In some urgent matters assessments of children at the registry are still being conducted, adhering to the Courts’ new Face-to-face protocol. If the appointment is with a Regulation 7 Family Consultant and was not to occur within the registry, you will need to make contact with that practitioner directly and discuss how the assessment is to proceed.
How might COVID-19 impact on my shared parenting arrangements?
In the highly unusual circumstances now faced by Australian parents and carers, there may be situations that arise that make strict compliance with court orders very difficult, if not, impossible. This may be caused, for instance, where orders stipulate that contact with a parent occurs at a designated contact centre, which may not currently be operating. Or, the “pick up” arrangements of a child may nominate a particular school, and that school is now closed. Many state borders are also closed. In addition, there may be genuine safety issues that have arisen where one parent, or someone in close contact with that parent, has been exposed to COVID-19, and this may restrict the safe movement of a child from one house to another.
What are my options if I want to vary my parenting orders?
1. Communicate and reach an agreement if possible As a first step, and only if it is safe to do so, parties should communicate with each other about their ability to comply with current orders and they should attempt to find a practical solution to these difficulties. These should be considered sensibly and reasonably. Each parent should always consider the safety and best interests of the child, but also appreciate the concerns of the other parent when attempting to reach new or revised arrangements. This includes understanding that family members are important to children and the risk of infection to vulnerable members of the child’s family and household should also be considered. If an agreement can be reached about new parenting arrangements, even if they are to be adjusted for a short period of time, this agreement should ideally be in writing, even if by way of email, text message or WhatsApp between each other.
2. Get help to reach an agreement If you feel that you need further guidance, the Family Relationships Advice Line can provide information, advice and telephone-based Family Dispute Resolution services to assist parents and carers to discuss any issues that arise and help them come to an agreement. The Family Relationships Advice Line can be contacted on 1800 050 321 or visit the website. Parents and carers can also mediate their differences through lawyers. Electronic mediation services are available from the Courts and through local Bar Associations and Law Societies during these restricted times. Visit their websites for more information. If an agreement has been reached 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 a hearing.
3. Apply to the Court If the parties are unable to agree to vary the arrangement, or if it is unsafe to do so, and one or both parents continue to have real concerns, the parties are at liberty to approach the Court electronically and seek a variation of the orders. Procedural information about how to do this is available by contacting the Court using live chat or calling 1300 352 000.
My former partner and I have come to new arrangements for the shared care of our children, what do we do now?If an agreement can be reached about new parenting arrangements, even if they are to be adjusted for a short period of time, this agreement should ideally be in writing, even if by way of email, text message or WhatsApp messages between each other. This will be particularly important if there are later family law hearings and will assist all concerned, including the Court, to understand what agreement may have been reached. If an agreement has been reached 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 a hearing.
What can I do if I can’t comply with my court orders because of self-isolation restrictions or other circumstances make it difficult?
Every family’s circumstances are different and this is only to be used as general information. The Courts expect that parents and carers will act in the best interests of their children which includes ensuring their children’s safety and wellbeing and complying with Court orders in relation to parenting arrangements. In the highly unusual circumstances now faced by Australian parents and carers, there may be situations that arise that make strict compliance with court orders very difficult. It is imperative that, even if the orders cannot be strictly adhered to and are varied by the parties, the parties ensure that the purpose or spirit of the orders are respected when considering altering arrangements, and that they act in the best interest of the children. At all times, parents or carers must act reasonably. To act reasonably, or to have a reasonable excuse for not complying with Court orders, is a matter that is considered by the Court (pursuant to s70NAE of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth)). The Courts are prioritising urgent matters and those that concern the safety of children. Court hearings and events are currently being done by telephone or video-conferencing. For more details see the Notice to the Profession – COVID-19 Measures and listing arrangements.
How can I apply to the court to have the court settle my matter electronically?
New applications and other documents, such as consent orders, will need to be filed electronically through the Commonwealth Courts Portal (CCP), more information on how to do that is available on the How do I eFile page.
I share the care of our children with my former partner who lives in another state, how can I travel with my child to another state if the borders are closed?
Some Australian States and Territories are applying border restrictions in response to the Government’s protocols for non-essential travel. For many of you it is unclear how the border restrictions may affect your court orders. The Courts are working with the State and Territory authorities to introduce exemptions in relation to movement, which will enable you to adhere to court orders and cross borders where it is safe to do so. When crossing any State or Territory border you may be required to provide the appropriate court order as evidence of such essential movement to border control personnel. Please ensure you also carry current photo identification. Ideally you should hold a hard copy of the appropriate court order. Alternatively, if you are already in transit and as a large majority of you are already ‘registered users’ of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court portal you can access a copy of your Court Order via the following link www.comcourts.gov.au.
I have misplaced my court orders, how can I get a copy?
Orders made prior to June 2017 were only produced in hard copy and parties would have been sent a hard copy of orders through the post. After June 2017, all orders became electronic and published on the Commonwealth Court’s Portal (CCP). To access your file information you will need to register as a user on the Commonwealth Courts Portal. See How do I register for the Commonwealth Courts Portal. If your orders were made prior to June 2017, please email the National Enquiry Centre at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What can I do if my former partner and I cannot come to an agreement about the children?
As well as speaking to the Family Relationships Advice Line, parents and carers can mediate their differences through lawyers. Electronic mediation services are available through local Bar Associations and Law Societies during these restricted times. More information is available from the Law Society and Bar Associations in your state or territory. Where there is no agreement, parents should continue to ensure the safety of their children until the dispute can be resolved. Also during this period of dispute, parents should ensure that each parent or carer continues to have some contact with the children consistent with the parenting arrangements such as by videoconferencing, social media, or if that is not possible, by telephone. If you are unable to agree to vary shared parenting arrangements, or if it is unsafe to do so, and one or both parents continue to have real concerns, the parties are at liberty to approach the Court electronically and seek a variation of the orders. You can find information on how to do this in the How do I apply for parenting orders page under the heading Applying to change an existing parenting order The Courts’ registry services can be accessed remotely and can assist with telephone appointments, electronic filing and the listing of urgent cases, contact the Court using live chat or phone 1300 352 000.
What if mediation hasn’t worked or it is not safe?
The Courts appreciate that mediation and coming to an agreement by mutual consent may not be reached, particularly if one party has concern for their physical safety. Where there is no agreement, parents should continue to ensure the safety of their children until the dispute can be resolved. Also during this period of dispute, parents should ensure that each parent or carer continues to have some contact with the children consistent with the parenting arrangements such as by videoconferencing, social media, or if that is not possible, by telephone.
If you already have court orders or have family law proceedings, and you are unable to agree to vary shared parenting arrangements, or if it is unsafe to do so, and one or both parents continue to have real concerns, the parties are at liberty to approach the Court electronically and seek a variation of the orders. You can find information on how to do this in the How do I apply for parenting orders page under the heading Applying to change an existing parenting order.
What if I haven’t been to the Court before and I don’t have court orders?
The law requires separating families who have a dispute about children to make a genuine effort to try and sort it out through family dispute resolution (FDR) before filing an application for parenting orders in court. This requirement applies to anyone wanting to file an application with the Court. It also includes those seeking changes to an existing parenting order. There are a few exceptions to this requirement, such as cases involving family violence, child abuse or urgency. Unless an exemption applies, parties seeking to have a parenting matter determined by the Court will need to electronically file a certificate from an accredited FDR practitioner. The certificate is issued under Section 60I of the Family Law Act 1975 and is commonly known as a Section 60I Certificate. You can visit Family Relationships Online for more information about the services and advice available for families, including seeking services from an FDR practitioner. An FDR practitioner is an independent person who can help people discuss issues, look at options and work out how best to reach agreement in disputes about children. You can search for an accredited FDR practitioner who has consented to be on the Family Dispute Resolution Register website.
TOP TEN GUIDE FOR SEPARATED PARENTS DURING COVID9
Provided by the Family Law Section – Law Council of Australia
Separated parents experience both the joys and stressors of parenting. But additional pressures and stresses such as those associated with the Covid19 Pandemic can be hard to accommodate and provoke anxiety in parent and child alike.
The Family Law Section has compiled these TOP TEN suggestions to help separated parents navigate this difficult time.
1. Stay healthy
Model best practice habits (for kids, family and friends) to minimise the risk of spread of the virus – frequent and thorough hand washing and responsible social distancing. Simple routines become habit forming.
Guidelines are available at here
Let the other parent know that you (and all members of the household) are following these guidelines – we all worry that others are not taking things as seriously as we should and assurances bring peace of mind and good will. As with all co-parenting, consistent messaging across households is ideal.
2. Be present and considered
This is a serious health challenge. Children will have heard much through their schools, networks and media.
Children are not necessarily able to accurately process all of this information in a way that allows for peace of mind. Older children whose studies and major social events such as school formals and celebrations have been cancelled may be unsettled and anxious. Younger children can readily become confused and scared by perceived magnitudes of risk.
3. Meeting your obligations
If your parenting matters are regulated by court order or agreement, you must still meet your obligations under those terms unless a reasonable excuse applies. If arrangements become unclear or cannot be met (eg: quarantine, travel restrictions or because schools close) use common sense to find solutions to challenges. If you anticipate a change, give the other parent plenty of notice and an explanation so they also have time to adjust.
If schools are closed and changeover normally occurred after and at school or sporting events, nominate or start planning for another neutral and public location that will be suitable – and where social distancing practices can be maintained.
Sporting activities or activities parents planned to do with children during school holidays or weekends are unlikely to now be available. Think about whether you will be required to work from home and whether that is feasible when children are in your care.
If time arrangements with the other parent or important people cannot occur, find other ways to try to maintain the connection – including digital communications.
5. Be open
Try to be on the same page with the other parent about the things you will each do in your respective households (and in your wider communities) to limit exposure to the virus and to shield the children.
If a child is showing any symptoms, that information should be shared immediately with the other parent, and an agreed response implemented. Know what your own self- isolation plan will be so that you are able to share that with the other parent if necessary.
Try to engage openly and honestly with the other parent about your worries and if there has been a risk of exposure to the virus, be honest about that (at which point mandated responses will be required in any event, which will include isolation or quarantine and may include testing).
6. Be mutual
Think about how you would like the other parent to engage with you about these issues, and model that engagement. Make accommodations to the other parent if they are possible and good for the children – and expect such accommodations in return. If time can’t occur at one point, suggest it occur at another point.
All parents and children will benefit from some mutually agreed give and take.
7. Be Compassionate
Very few people can apply certainty to their planning in times of stress and may respond to data about risk in ways that may seem disproportionate to you – but understand that we do not have a playbook for how to plan for or respond to this crisis. Being calm in times of high stress is hard – but you are more likely to reduce the conflict if both are making the best effort possible.
8. Be Solution Focussed
At this time, more than ever, the need for parents and other adults concerned with the care of children to find compromise in the interests of children, is absolutely clear. Courts will increasingly have limited availability; dispute resolution services may be hard to access and common sense coupled with respectful engagement may be the surest path.
It’s an opportunity to find new ways to solve old problems.
9. Help out to the extent you can
People may lose jobs or experience a reduction in their income. This may impact what can be paid by way of child support or the contribution to other expenses.
Try to be understanding of the situation the other parent is in – financial worry will probably exist in both households. The message and legacy of these days should be, as far as possible, that both parents and households worked together to find a solution that was as good as possible for the children.
10. Be patient and positive
This situation is not going to resolve overnight. Changes to the way we work, socialise, communicate and parent will come in the next few weeks and months.
Make a conscious effort to embrace the good and joyful moments in each day, stay connected by phone or social media to friends or family who can support you and remember that you are the beacon for your children at this time.
For more helpful links and practical advice see: