1. Is it still possible to get divorced?
Yes. It is still possible to get divorced as the court are still accepting divorce petitions or petitions via their online portal on the Gov.uk website: https://www.gov.uk/divorce. However, we are expecting delays with the court processing new divorce and financial applications at this time.
If you are thinking about petitioning for a divorce or making an application to the court at the moment, you might wish to take legal advice as to any other options available to you to try and resolve matters first.
2. Should my children still see the other parent?
The short answer to this is yes. The government has said that essential travel includes a child moving between separated parents’ homes. If however you are concerned about your child’s safety, perhaps as a result of the other person being a key worker and more exposed to the virus, then it may be appropriate to vary the arrangements whilst the crisis continues. This is a link to the Gov.uk guidance: https://www.judiciary.uk/announcements/coronavirus-crisis-guidance-on-compliance-with-family-court-child-arrangement-orders/.
If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place and you agree to vary it, you can. If you decide not to follow the order without the agreement of the other parent, this would be a breach of the order and the other parent may threaten to make an application to the court to enforce the order. You can exercise your parental responsibility without agreement to make sure everyone is kept safe, however it is important that you are following the Government’s guidance. In the context of the current pandemic, the court is likely to look at whether each parent acted reasonably in light of that advice and the rules in place at the time.
Even if it is not possible for direct contact to take place, you should consider whether remote technology can assist e.g. Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp video or similar. This might also be appropriate if contact previously took place at a contact centre as most contact centres are currently closed.
3. I have a court hearing coming up, is it likely to go ahead?
The court system is trying to ensure that as many hearings as possible go ahead, particularly those that are urgent. Recent guidance issued by the family court suggests that in all but essential cases, hearings should be taking place remotely. It is therefore likely that over the next few weeks the use of telephone and video hearings will increase and in some cases it may be possible to deal with certain hearings on paper.
The guidance issued by the court suggests that where a remote hearing is not possible or appropriate, the hearing should be adjourned so that a short directions hearing can take place remotely to decide how the issues can be dealt with fairly and justly. People are also being encouraged to consider alternative means of dispute resolution, including arbitration, private FDRs and mediation.
If an agreement is reached, judges can still accept consent orders for their approval, which will hopefully allow certain cases to continue to progress whilst physical attendance at court is not possible.
4. I was hoping to resolve my case through mediation but understand that involves a face to face meeting with both of us and a mediator – is there any way of progressing things through mediation at present?
Yes, most mediators are offering mediation through Skype or other online video access to deal with both children and financial issues.
5. I am in receipt of maintenance and the payer has said that this is going to reduce because of a reduction in his/her income. Can he/she do this?
If you are unable to afford to pay spousal maintenance which has been ordered by the court, the correct procedure is to apply to the court for a downward variation. If you stop paying spousal maintenance, you will be in breach of a court order. Arrears will start to accrue and enforcement proceedings could be started against you by the other party. Inevitably at present there are delays with the court system and this may in practice mean that people cannot wait for the court to deal with their application before reducing the maintenance that is being paid. The court has the power to remit (cancel) arrears which may be appropriate in certain cases.
Former spouses should be encouraged to be sensible and look at the reality of the income and outgoings situation to see whether a temporary reduction can be agreed if appropriate, thereby saving both significant costs. Mediation may well assist with this. Documentation should be provided to confirm the reduction in income so that there is transparency.
With regard to child maintenance, this is usually dealt with by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). Even where child maintenance is included in a court order, it is only binding for 12 months after which either party can apply to CMS. The CMS usually carry out an annual review of the payer’s liability for child maintenance, by reference to the gross income they have earned in the previous 12 months. The CMS usually only make a change to your child maintenance payments outside their annual review, if your income increases by 25% or more. However, you should still contact them to make them aware of any change in your circumstances and to find out whether they have put in place any additional support as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
6. I am concerned about an abusive relationship whilst in isolation. Is there anything I can do?
It is important to remember that if you fear you or your children are at risk of immediate harm, you should contact the Police. In addition, there are organisations that can provide support who are continuing to operate, such as the National Domestic Abuse Helpline and the Domestic Abuse Volunteer Support Service.
The courts also remain open and available to deal with urgent cases where necessary. There are orders which can be obtained in the family court, such as non-molestation orders and occupation orders, to protect somebody’s wellbeing. It is important that you obtain advice as soon as possible if you have concerns about the safety of yourself or any children in the household.