How to manage Access/Contact visits in your family

Information updated October 22nd 2020

All of us, as a community and as families are being affected by the current Covid–19 crisis. We are in this together and we know that many people are anxious and confused about important issues. It is essential in this time of adversity that we work together for the best interests of the most vulnerable in our society and most particularly our children.

Many parents have concerns right now about how to manage access/contact visits at this time of crisis when we are being told to minimise travel, practice social distancing, adhere to certain hygiene practices, and avoid being with other people. Each family is different and so each family is going to need to figure out how their access arrangements will work best for them over the coming weeks and months. It is very important for children to continue to have safe positive relationships with both of their parents and extended family if possible, even during this time. If your family is happy with existing arrangements then that is great, but for many parents they are thinking about whether they need to vary the arrangements to allow for health issues and to ensure that they are complying with Government guidelines.

Support Bubbles:

The most recent restrictions which commenced on October 22nd 2020 allow people in certain situations to form a support bubble with one other household to help with isolation. You can form a support bubble if you are living alone with children under the age of 18 or if you don’t live with your children but you share parenting or custody arrangements. Our current understanding is that access visits are separate to support bubbles and you can form a support bubble with another household in addition to facilitating access. Further information is available here.

Varying Access/Contact Arrangements:

It is possible to vary your arrangements with the consent of both parents even if they are court-ordered, that is no problem and you do not need to return to court. If both parents do not agree about whether it should be varied, or how that should happen, then bear in mind that, if possible, orders should be maintained. The Law Society in its recent guidance notes that court orders “should be complied with to the greatest degree possible in the circumstances”.

However, this may not possible or desirable given the current restrictions, so it really depends on your individual situation. We are receiving lots of questions from parents who have access with their child as well as those who have their child living with them regarding essential travel, especially across distances or between different parts of the country or county.

Former Minister for Justice & Equality Charlie Flanagan previously stated: “However I think it’s important to point out that court orders in relation to access remain in place. The restrictions brought in to tackle Covid-19 do not stop them being implemented and should not be used as an excuse by either party.”

On 22nd October regulations in relation to COVID-19 travel which apply until 1st December 2020 has provided exemptions for people involved in travelling for access visits. The relevant section and wording are here:

Regulations entitled Health Act 1947 (Section 3IA – Temporary Restrictions) (Covid-19) (No.8) Regulations 2020

5 (1) Subject to paragraph (2), an applicable person shall not travel from his or her county of residence to another county or to a state other than the State without reasonable excuse.

(2) Without prejudice to the generality of what constitutes a reasonable excuse for the purposes of paragraph (1), a reasonable excuse for travelling includes travelling in order to:

(n) if the applicable person is a parent or guardian of a child, or a

person having a right of access to a child, give effect to

arrangements for access to the child by –

(i) the applicable person, or

(ii) another person who is –

(I) a parent or guardian of the child, or

(II) a person having a right of access to the child

The regulations also provide for a person who needs to fulfil legal obligations, where required:

(l) fulfil a legal obligation (including attending court, satisfying bail conditions, or participating in ongoing legal proceedings), attend a court office where required, initiate emergency legal proceedings or execute essential legal documents

The definition of a ‘household’ in the regulations in relation to attending events is outlined below:

6 (3) (c) where the event is attended by –

(i) a child, and

(ii) a parent or guardian of such child, who does not ordinarily reside with that child,

the parent or guardian, as the case may be, and the child shall be deemed to reside in the same household.

You can access the full regulations here and updates to legislation can be found here as changes are announced. If you are worried about travelling for access under the current restrictions then you might want to save this information to your phone or print out the regulations to have with you in case you meet a Garda checkpoint.

 

Things to Consider:

  • Everybody’s health and well-being are important here as Ireland responds to the pandemic in reducing the incidence of Covid19 transmission.
  • Changes are being experienced by everyone across the country and this is unprecedented.
  • These times are difficult for all; for the child who may be worried about their parents and miss seeing them and be confused about what is happening; for the parent with main care of the child as there is no break or time apart from their child outside of the childcare or school routine; for the parent who usually spends part of their week with their child and looks forward to this time as it may be hard to not see their child and spend time with them as they usually do and they will greatly miss the contact. This is a lot of change for all of you.
  • The most important thing to consider is the best interest of the child and this is particularly important if there are any health concerns as it is important and reasonable to minimise the child’s and all other family member’s exposure to the corona virus.
  • Children can particularly benefit from predictability and stability at a time like this and it may be very important to maintain regular contact time and shared parenting if this is possible and safe. This can really be in the best interest of the child once you as parents can make it work safely and subject to any additional instructions from government.
  • It is also important to consider whether the child is living with anyone who could be considered at risk for the virus such as an older person or someone with an underlying condition as the guidelines from the Law Society states “There should be no contact with grandparents and any person with an underlying condition”.
  • What are the wishes or concerns of each parent or guardian? Are you clear or is communication possible? How are you feeling as a parent – anxious, threatened, isolated, fearful?
  • What are the wishes of the child? Remember you don’t have to follow what a child wants but it is important to consider their views and experience in your decision making.
  • Are both parents committed to social distancing and to following HSE rules in relation to prevention of the spread of virus and can both make assurances about this?
  • This is a short-term measure, ensure that any required changes are agreed so that everyone understands that, as soon as possible and in line with Government guidance about Covid-19, original arrangements will be restored.
  • If you are going to vary arrangements, can they be reviewed to see if they work for everyone? Flexibility at times like this is really important.

 

Decision Making

If good communication between parents is possible then this process will be made so much easier for everyone but if not possible then help is available to help you make good decisions for your family. The Family Mediation Service of the Legal Aid Board is offering free telephone mediation and conflict coaching. More details about this service can be found at www.legalaidboard.ie.

The Family and Child Law Committee of the Law Society has provided us with some very useful advice in relation to access issues and state:
“It is important that common sense prevails in relation to access, in the current climate. If access cannot take place (for any of the reasons set out above) parents should set up a system of liberal [remote] contact.” The reasons they consider to be relevant is around health and safety of the child, the family whom they live with, any particular health issues of the child and that parents must follow all social distancing rules. The full paper relating to access and other family law issues in the context of Covid19 are here.

The former Minister reminded us in April at the beginning of restrictions that “I would simply appeal to everyone to remember  that at all times, the welfare of the child is paramount.” His full statement is available here.

The President of the District Court, Judge Colin Daly has also issued a statement on the issue of access and states: “The best outcome for children is for parents to contact each other to set out their concerns and suggest ideas for practical solutions that can be put in place. The health concerns of parents, their children and the extended family need to be considered when sorting out arrangements. As parents, if you agree that the arrangements set out in a court order should be temporarily varied you are free to do so. Make a note of this agreement by way of email or text message. Where a child, by agreement, does not get to spend their usual time with their parent, the court will expect that contact is established and maintained regularly. Using video technologies such as Skype, Zoom, What’s App or Face-Time might help, and if that is not possible telephone conversations should be arranged. These current restrictions mean that the detail of every access order may not be full implementable, but as parents you should make every effort to allow your child to continue access in a safe, alternative way.” The full statement is here.

Parents may have different views on how to maintain social distancing, on who is a vulnerable person or they may be very fearful of not getting to spend time with their children or they may be very fearful their child will become ill.

Dispute Resolution:

As this is a very stressful time it is better if family members can come to an agreement they can live with in the short term even if it requires outside help. Neutral professionals can be very helpful in these situations.

Any guardian or parent of a child can take a case to court to seek or change access/ contact. Since 8 May 2020, breaches of access are now deemed urgent and will be heard by the District Court. Contact details for offices are here.

Alternative Access/Contact visits:

There are many ways in which parents can have quality time with their children even if you have decided it cannot be in-person during this crisis. Using different apps such as What’s App, Skype and Zoom , which is free to use once both parents have a smartphone. Read our tips on supporting your child when access needs to change due to Covid-19.