Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis: Guidance on Compliance with Family Court Child Custody & Access Orders
We are living in a period of great instability and uneasiness. The threat of Covid-19 is now felt in every area of our lives and we see its impact everywhere – from cancelled travel plans, to the economic downturn and the security of our employment, and now even to restrictions on where we can sit when having a meal at the hawker centre. Undoubtedly, Covid-19 is also going to have an impact on divorced parents and how they will manage access and visitation rights to their children in the chaos of the current pandemic. Although the Singapore government may be regulating public behaviour by constantly issuing updated guidelines, there is no such help for divorced parents. The onus lies on the co-parents to manage the situation the best they can, to offer certainty and reassurance to their children, as well as their ex-spouses, who may fear losing access to their children even more than they fear the coronavirus. We outline below some helpful general and legal principles for divorced parents to keep in mind that will allow them to navigate child custody and access arrangements in these uncertain times better.
Existing court orders should be complied with to the furthest extent possible
Parents still have a legal obligation to comply with the existing court order for custody, care and access arrangements and risk legal consequences if they fail to do so. Nonetheless, if compliance with the court order puts the health of the children or others at risk, parents should exercise sensible discernment and make alternative arrangements accordingly. For example, if one parent has been issued with a Stay-Home Notice or a Quarantine Order, it would be clearly prudent for that parent to avoid all physical contact with their children. Even if the parent has care and control of the children (the “primary caregiver”) but has been issued with a Stay-Home Notice or a Quarantine Order, the children must not stay with the primary caregiver and arrangements should be made for the children to reside with the other parent (the “access parent”) until the period of isolation is completed.
Exercising patience and empathy, maintaining clear communication, and finding alternative arrangements
As mentioned above, even in this period, court orders and their access terms are still effective and parents should be careful to adhere to them. When a primary caregiver refuses to allow the access parent to have time with the children, the access parent should recognise that the primary caregiver has no legal right to do so. Even so, the access parent should be slow to resort to legal means to enforce their access rights. Instead, both parents need to communicate well and express their concerns and needs clearly to the other party. All of us have different ideas for what is the appropriate response to this unprecedented viral pandemic. Even if one parent believes it is safe for contact to take place, it could also be entirely reasonable for the other parent to be deeply concerned about it. Both parents should endeavour to exercise patience and empathy in these trying times. The access parent should recognise the primary caregiver’s desire to protect the children from the danger of contracting the virus. The access parent may do so by setting out certain safety measures they plan to undertake to protect the safety of the children, such as not allowing other visitors to their home when the children are over. At the same time, the primary caregiver should recognise the access parent’s desire to spend time with their children. It would be unfair to both the children and the access parent to have their bonding and contact time suspended for an indefinite period. The primary caregiver may propose for access to be conducted remotely through video conferencing technologies, such as Zoom or Skype. The primary caregiver should also offer makeup access to the access parent once the situation stabilises more. When making such proposals for alternative arrangements, it would be sensible for each parent to record the agreement in an email or text message sent to each other.
When parents cannot agree on care arrangements
If it is difficult for parents to agree on what is an appropriate care arrangement in light of the Covid-19 situation and the relationship between parties becomes increasingly acrimonious, parties should seek to have a neutral third party involved. This may be done by way of mediation. If the mediation is successful and parties are able to arrive at a new agreement for access, this would be recorded as a mediation settlement agreement and becomes legally binding. If mediation is unsuccessful and the primary caregiver continues to refuse access to the children, the aggrieved parent may seek legal recourse and retain the services of a family lawyer. The party may then file for a case of contempt of court against the primary caregiver for refusing to comply with the access terms in the court order. But this should really be the last resort. .
Providing reassurance and stability to the children
Parents need to keep in mind that amidst all the fear and confusion surrounding Covid-19, their children are looking up to them for reassurance and support. Parents must learn to place the welfare and needs of their children before their own, and that means working well with the other party to make care arrangements that give their children the greatest stability. What matters most is that parents are able to rise to the occasion and set an example for their children in how to handle a crisis.
All the more so in an unprecedented health crisis that we face now, the interests of the children are even more paramount. Their safety should never be compromised, but parents should also not use COVID-19 as an excuse not to let the other parent see the children.
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