How to manage Access/Contact visits in your family
Information updated 8 January 2021
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 particularly important that children 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.
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, even if there is an Access Order or other legal agreement in place, for example, as part of a legal separation or divorce. There is no need to return to court if you can agree on an arrangement. If parents cannot agree about whether access 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”.
Former Minister for Justice & Equality Charlie Flanagan previously stated: “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 December 4th regulations in relation to COVID-19 travel, which apply until 31st January 2021, provided exemptions for people travelling for access visits with their children.
In brief, the regulations allow parents to travel to have access to their children where they are the parent or guardian of a child with a right of access to the child. Other persons with right of access, such as court orders, may also travel to avail of access.
You are also allowed to travel to attend court for legal proceedings, including initiating emergency legal proceedings.
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 is important as Ireland responds to the pandemic by reducing the incidence of Covid19 transmission.
- These times are difficult for parents and for the children who may be worried about their parents, miss seeing them, and be confused about what is happening.
- Parents who have less in-person time with their children are finding it very difficult, as are parents with the main care of the children who have no downtime. 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 Covid19.
- 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. 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”.
- 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?
- Ensure that any changes to existing access arrangements are agreed and keep a record of this, including that it is temporary and that original arrangements will be restored as soon as possible and in line with Government guidance about Covid19. If you are worried that any changes you may agree now might continue past the end of these restrictions then consider putting a clear end date or review date, in line with expected lifting of restrictions.
- The President of the District Court, Judge Colin Daly’s updated statement as of January 8th, 2021 offers reassurance that temporary changes made for safety or public health reasons should revert to the original court order as soon as it is safe to do so, as that is the level of access the court has decided is right for your children. His full statement is available here.
If good communication between parents is possible then this process will be made so much easier for everyone, but, if communication is not possible then help is available. 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.
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.
The following measures concerning the business of the Court will be implemented between the 7th January 2021 and the 1st March 2021 due to the recent raising of restrictions beyond Level 5. These measures are to ensure access to justice in a manner fully respecting public safety and considering Government public health advice. Further information is available here.
All Irish Circuit Family Court divorce and other cases except urgent ones are also now cancelled until 1st Feb 2021. Contact details for court 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. It is a good idea to agree specific days and times for this to happen to ensure continuity and consistency for children and parents. Read our tips on supporting your child when access needs to change due to Covid-19.