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Top tips for Christmas contact arrangements during Covid-19

View profile for Shelley Cumbers
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Top tips for Christmas contact arrangements during Covid-19

It is that time of year again, as the countdown to Christmas begins. However, this year the countdown is very different. The COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government will influence how families can spend time together over the festive period.  Across the UK, a tier system will run from 2 December 2020 and people will then be allowed to form “bubbles” of three households over a five-day period between 23 and 27 December 2020. 

This means that, for separated parents, there are lots of things to think about when it comes to sorting out the contact arrangements over the Christmas period and here are our top tips:

1. Plan early

Now, more than ever, separated parents should try to plan their Christmas contact arrangements as early as possible. Make sure you allow plenty of time to agree matters and do not leave it to the last minute. Failure to do so may result in further difficulties, and cause unnecessary stress and uncertainty, which you should try to avoid. If there is a clash of events, you will need sufficient time to find a solution.  

You should plan as early as possible who the children will spend Christmas Day with, as well as the arrangements for the festive period generally. Be prepared to be flexible and, if necessary, reach a compromise so that the best interests of the children are always put first. 

Agree contingency plans in light of Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions. Think about what should happen if you, the other parent, or child becomes unwell, including the risk of contracting the coronavirus or having to self-isolate. 

2. Keep a channel of communication open

Communication is key and parents should try to keep a dialogue open so that arrangements can be agreed in good time. For many families, this Christmas may be the first they have spent apart, making communication even more challenging. Try to do what works best for you and your family, whether that’s direct discussions face-to-face or discussions over the phone, by video call, text message or email for example. 

Be honest and open in your discussions and try to start a dialogue as soon as possible so that you all know where you stand and can plan accordingly.

3. Be aware of the Covid-19 rules and restrictions

Christmas this year is likely to be very different for everyone. Whilst the rules arising from the pandemic allow children to move between separated parents, families should ensure they keep up to date with the restrictions imposed by the government and guidance issued as a result of Covid-19.  

Think about the practical arrangements, such as the safety of travel, the rules that apply in terms of the activities you are allowed to do with your children indoors and outdoors, and the number of people you are allowed to meet up with. 

Consult a solicitor if you need specific advice on how your situation might be affected by the virus and how your family can manage the arrangements, considering the pandemic and the ever changing Covid-19 restrictions.   

4. Listen to your children

Always put the best interests of your children first when sorting out the arrangements and listen to their views. Reassure them and try to consider the contact arrangements from their perspective. Try to remain positive and encouraging when you talk to them about the arrangements, and recognise that this may be a very difficult time for them, especially if it is the first Christmas after separation. 

Parents should try to agree how they are going to explain the arrangements to their children and, where appropriate, involve them in the decision-making process. Children should be given the opportunity to tell you how they feel, and parents should be prepared to take their views on board, especially if they are teenagers or older. For younger children, their views should not necessarily dictate the outcome, but they should still be listened to.  

Do not make them choose between you as it is unfair to ask children to decide where they would like to spend their Christmas holidays. It places them in an unnecessarily difficult position which is likely to cause upset. 

5. Consider alternating Christmas

There are no set rules or guidelines when it comes to contact arrangements, whether at Christmas or otherwise. The children’s welfare should be the first consideration when it comes to sorting out how and with whom their time should be spent over the festive period. Every family is different and whilst an arrangement might work for one family, it may be unsuitable for another. 

Consider whether to alternate Christmas Day and Boxing Day year on year. Alternatively, consider sharing Christmas Day, especially if you live close to one another, so that the children spend Christmas morning with one parent and the afternoon with the other for example. Another option includes splitting the festive period into blocks of days and alternating those year on year. 

If you have previously agreed contact arrangements on an alternating basis, you may wish to consider whether, for this year, such arrangements need to be reviewed in light of the Christmas “bubbles” and the specific Covid-19 rules that will apply for 23 – 27 December 2020.

6. What to do if you cannot agree

Whilst separated parents should try to agree the Christmas contact arrangements amicably, we recognise that this is not always possible and for some families it will be necessary to consider other options as a means of resolving the arrangements.  

If you cannot reach an agreement, then seek the advice of a family lawyer as soon as possible. They will advise you on the options available for resolving such matters. There are many ways in which separated parents can resolve the arrangements for their children including solicitor correspondence and/or negotiation, mediation and collaborative law. 

Separated parents can also make an application to the court. However, court proceedings should be considered an option of last resort. They are costly and are likely to make a stressful period become even more stressful. 

Due to the significant backlogs at court, which have worsened considerably as a result of the pandemic, it is unlikely, unless in exceptional circumstances requiring an urgent hearing, that the court will be able to hear your case before Christmas. You should therefore explore all other avenues of alternative dispute resolution.

7.   Travelling abroad at Christmas

For some separated families there is an international element to consider. Parents wishing to travel abroad with their children over the festive period will have several additional things to think about. 

Firstly, they must obtain the agreement of the other parent with parental responsibility to take the child abroad. If this consent is not given, you will need a court order granting you permission to travel.  Bear in mind the difficulties explained above, so far as court applications are concerned in light of the pandemic. 

Secondly, provided permission is given, ensure you have provided the other parent with full details of the trip including the dates, flight, travel, location, accommodation, and communication details including emergency contact details. Think about how the child will keep in contact with the other parent such as by telephone or video call and agree how to deal with the handover and return of passports.  

Assuming travel is permitted, this year parents must also ensure all Covid-19 rules and precautions are followed, including checking the risk factors of the area you will be staying in and any places you plan to visit. Consider the Covid-19 risks of travelling and whether any quarantine and testing is necessary. Research the safety precautions and discuss this openly and in good time with the other parent. 

8. Seek legal advice

If you need any advice on the issues raised in this blog, please do get in touch. We offer a free 15-minute telephone call to discuss your situation and to see how we can help.  I am based in our Colchester office and can be contacted on 01206 217378 or I offer appointments in our Colchester office or remotely via telephone call or Microsoft Teams, whichever is your preference.