Parenting orders in the world of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to the normal processes of our legal system. Every jurisdiction and area of law has been required to adapt to government regulations such as social distancing and restrictions on gatherings.

The Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court are no exception. Both Courts have moved to holding trials via online platforms where possible, conducting telephone or video mentions, increased electronic filing and adjournment of some non-urgent matters as well as an increasing Registrars’ workloads in order to adequately manage non-urgent matters.

However, the most urgent matters requiring face-to-face hearings continue to be heard, subject to strict social distancing restrictions.

Compliance with parenting orders

The Courts have adapted to social distancing restrictions and closures, meaning parenting orders can continue to be made during the COVID-19 pandemic subject to these measures.

However, what does this mean for existing parenting orders that were made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Naturally, existing parenting orders were not made with the foresight of a pandemic and therefore do not outline what is to occur in such an event. The Courts emphasise strict compliance with Court orders and as a result, parents are facing confusion and uncertainty in scenarios where compliance with particular orders has become impractical or impossible. Examples of this include:

  • where a parent, child or other member of the household is in self-isolation or quarantine;
  • where a venue which was typically used for a parenting changeover is closed;
  • physical closure of schools; and
  • restrictions on interstate travel.

The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Will Alstergren, released a statement to provide some guidance to parents when it comes to compliance with parenting orders. The Chief Justice stated it is imperative parents continue to act in the best interests of the child and comply with orders. Where strict compliance is difficult or not possible at all, parents are encouraged to communicate with each other about these difficulties and be sensible and reasonable with each other in finding an appropriate solution.

Where changes to parenting arrangements alter the amount of time one parent will spend with a child compared to normal circumstances, the Chief Justice stated that the other parent will need to make efforts to facilitate contact by video, phone or other communication platforms. He also recommended that parents give consideration to making up for lost time after restrictions are lifted.

Reaching an agreement

If an agreement is reached, parents are advised to communicate this with each other in writing whether by email, text or other communication platform. In addition, applications to vary orders by consent can still be filed online with the Court.

Where parents are unable to reach an agreement, they are encouraged to engage in dispute resolution or seek assistance from lawyers.

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic is not an automatic excuse to not comply with orders. Parents must continue to act in the child’s best interests. This includes compliance with court orders to the full extent that it is possible to do so. Where compliance is impractical or impossible, parents should communicate difficulties to each other, and act sensibly and reasonably in finding a resolution that is in the best interests of the child.

Any agreements reached between parents should be reflected in writing for future reference.

If an agreement cannot be reached, consider alternative dispute resolution or assistance from lawyers.

If you have any questions regarding your obligations with respect to parenting orders or require any other assistance regarding your family law matter, please contact our family law team on (03) 9645 9500 or via email to emily.velo-craig@mertonlawyers.com.au.



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