How the spread of Coronavirus could affect the operation of family law

The Government has issued numerous warnings and advice about precautions to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The guidance has to respond as the situation develops. What is suitable today might be regarded as inadequate at some stage in the future.

Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic, a disease affecting several continents. Based on the situation in England and Wales in early March, this article looks at how the health implications of the spread of the virus might, in practical terms, affect the operation of family law.

General

Family law is that which governs relationships in families (widely defined). When all is well, the law is generally silent and only in certain circumstances, does the law need actively to be implemented.

Gatherings

At the moment, whilst some sporting bodies have cancelled tournaments or individual contests, there is no legal restriction on gatherings in this country. It is, however, quite possible that, if the number of people affected by the illness increased, the government could decide to restrict gatherings over a certain number attending.

Taking an extreme example in the context of family life, a large number attending a wedding or a memorial service, could be prohibited.

Breakdown of a relationship

This is the situation where the operation of family law is most obviously felt. There are invariably many issues to be decided, the most obvious being the future arrangements for children and family finances.

There are considerations arising from the coronavirus which will have to be considered even where the parties are anxious to reach agreement without having to go to court (which is still strongly encouraged).

Here are some examples.

Arrangements for children

  • Sometimes there is disagreement between separated parents as to whether one of them should be able to take the children out of this  country on holiday. If the destination happened to be a country where coronavirus was particularly active, this issue might have to be decided by the court. In doing so, the court would take into  account what was best for the children including, of course, their health

  • In other cases, one parent might want to move to live permanently in another country where the risk from the coronavirus is greater. Again, it is the best interests of the children which would be paramount and their health would be a major factor in making the decision.

  • Perhaps it is not the children who might travel but others, such as grandparents from a country particularly affected by the virus. It might be the first time for several years that the grandparents have seen the children or they might be old and in failing health. A decision would have to be made about what is best for the children

  • The children of parents who have died e.g. in a car accident, would have to live elsewhere.There might be noone else in this country who could give the children a home but relations living abroad willing to do so. If the virus was particularly active in that other country, but otherwise the relations were approved as potential carers, it would have to be decided whether they should be allowed to go and if so, when

  • Parents sometimes take differing approaches to health risks. Perhaps a school trip is planned to a country where there is coronavirus but the organisers judge that the risk is containable. One parent agrees to the child going ahead but the other does not. A decision will have to be made, if not by the organisers, then by a court.

Financial arrangements

When parties split up, decisions have to be made about future financial arrangements. The following are some of the factors that will be considered in the light of coronavirus.

  • One of the parties may be employed by a business sector badly affected by the coronavirus, e.g. airline. Perhaps a job has been lost. The question of future employment and income and the risks of long term unemployment will be relevant.
     
  • If the parties or one of them, have significant capital (e.g. shares or a pension fund), the value will have reduced since the outbreak of  coronavirus. The value of any asset is taken to be that at the date of the settlement or the court order. If it is likely that the value of the asset will recover following the end of the pandemic, then it will have to be decided whether the case should be concluded now or put off to see how the market reacts within a defined period e.g. six months.
     
  • If the value of assets changes after a settlement or court order, then, based on the current law, it would be very difficult for a party who has been disadvantaged by the change, to persuade the court that the case should be reopened.

Personal attendance at court or other formal meetings

Where a case goes to court over the sorts of problems mentioned above, in most cases, the parties will be required to attend court personally. The issue may arise as to what is to happen if, for example, one party lives abroad and there are travel restrictions in place. Similarly, many (in fact, most) cases are settled by negotiation between solicitors which are often conducted with the parties present.

It is to be expected that judges will be very flexible and, for example, allow cases to be conducted via video link.

Need for advice

The significance of the potential long term implications of some of these issues cannot be overstated. Early legal advice should be taken and a strategy agreed as to the safest and most efficient and convenient way to deal with cases when the potential effects of coronavirus have to be taken into account.

If you or anyone you know, are affected by the issues raised above and would like more information or some preliminary, confidential advice, please contact one of our experienced experts in our family team by e-mail or telephone.

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