Family law, a year of living in a Covid world
As featured in The Scotsman.
The one year anniversary of the first lockdown has led many of us to reflect on the last year. Covid-19 has impacted almost every area of life, and family law is no exception. Here we draw some observations about the changes Covid-19 has at times forced upon us.
Some of the most significant impacts have been in relation to the care of children, and were felt almost immediately. Many separated parents had shared care arrangements that had been working reasonably well, but were thrown off track by the lockdown rules. In part that was because of changes to the way we were all living. One parent may want to move to a more rural location to get more outside space now that there was no commute to work, or to be closer to family. Moving house often causes friction as it may move the child away from the other parent such that they can see them less frequently, or necessitate a change in school which the other parent may think is not in the child’s best interests. It has also worked the other way, with some parents who were previously away with work very regularly now based at home and more available, and so asking to review the care arrangements so that the child can spend more time with them. It’s also common for separated parents to have different attitudes to parenting, and Covid has often laid these bare. One parent may be more of a risk taker and the other cautious and as we all know the guidance has been open to different interpretations. All of a sudden what the child was doing while with the other parent, was of significantly more relevance as it was potentially bringing risk directly in to the other parent’s home. We saw parents refusing to send (or return) children because they felt that the risk to the child, or to them, was too great. All of this caused heightened tensions and tested co-parenting relationships
Lockdown has also led to a sudden drop in income for many people, which in turn has impacted what they were able to afford to pay as maintenance to a spouse or children. It also saw some separated spouses ask for increased maintenance if their own income had decreased. In spring 2020 we had the perfect storm of significant numbers of people seeing an unanticipated reduction in their income and also the closure of the Courts. This forced many people to resolve matters directly, or for child maintenance apply to the Child Maintenance Service, which was experiencing serious delays. The majority of people were able to reach agreement about what was fair and what the revised amount of maintenance should be, but it was a stressful experience and many needed some professional input.
We have seen an increase in people moving in together, often much earlier in their relationship than they would otherwise have done. When lockdown was announced couples who were dating were faced with the stark choice of moving their relationship online, or moving in. For family lawyers it has given rise to a whole cohort of accidental cohabitants who have moved in together without necessarily thinking about what that might mean financially, particularly if they separate. For some, living together has been a successful fast forward, for others the pressures of such an intense way of living have proved too much and they are now trying to untangle their hastily combined finances.
Looking forward, it is likely that we will continue to see some diverging views between separated parents, particularly in relation to the safety of foreign travel as the restrictions ease, vaccines for children and also, for some, a decision around if they continue to home school a child or return them to the classroom. There is also likely to be a sharp uptick in the number of weddings and people starting (or restarting) their fertility journey. Beyond that, if we have learned anything from the last year it is how unpredictable the world can be. For most families it’s going to be a case of rolling with any punches whilst hoping for smoother sailing ahead.
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