The lockdown has been stressful for many of us but more so for those whose relationships were already at breaking point, says Helen Shaw, a family law solicitor at Tallents Solicitors.
During the first national lockdown in March 2020, separated parents were at a loss to understand how the rules applied to their children moving between different households to see the other parent.
This in turn led to an increase in parents turning to us for advice, where one parent saw the coronavirus pandemic being deliberately used as an excuse to withhold children from court ordered contact agreements or conversely blamed the other parent for putting children at risk by not observing social distancing rules, says Helen.
Fortunately, the courts foresaw this problem early in the crisis and on 23 March the President of the Family courts issued guidance to parents, making it clear that “Where parents do not live in the same household, children under 18 can be moved between their parents’ homes.”
The guidance urged parents to communicate and act reasonably in their children’s best interests and warned that if the case was brought to court after the event because the order had been broken, the court would look to see if the parent had acted reasonably and offered a sensible alternative to the contact ordered.
It fell to many family lawyers to try and manage the expectations of parents and carers alike while adhering to the government guidelines on social distancing.
However, the new constraints had a silver lining in providing a much needed catalyst for initiating changes to the legal system.
As the year progressed, both family lawyers and the courts became more adept at operating remotely, offering telephone and video meetings and hearings to keep matters moving along. Despite working under considerable pressure with fewer staff and more work, the legal system managed to keep running.
Technology has been put into place to enable cases to be heard remotely by telephone or video conferencing, which, at least in the case of administrative hearings, has been very effective.
Procedures too have been streamlined with fewer hearings and more intervention from court staff to manage the case without the need for the participants and their lawyers to be involved at every step.
However, the extreme stress caused by the Covid pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on many marital relationships, with Citizens Advice reporting an increase in divorce guidance searches since April 2020, peaking in early September.
It is now possible to start a divorce online and the process has been made simpler than the older paper applications. An increased number of divorce petitions, combined with fewer staff will put the courts under extra pressure, says Helen.
And just because the process can be started online, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak to a legal professional and get advice about your individual situation. As well as the divorce itself, most people have to sort out their financial situation, including the future of the family home, savings and pension assets.
Even an amicable divorce has the potential to turn into a conflict, so seeking professional legal advice early in the proceedings can help people think through their options and decide which process or combination of processes would be most suitable for them in their personal circumstances.
Tallents Solicitors has been offering a FREE weekly Family Law Clinic since 2013 at its Southwell office every Tuesday evening between 5-7pm. However, since the coronavirus pandemic, the drop-in clinic has been changed to a phone-in clinic, allowing many more people to access free family law advice. Just call 01636 813411 on Tuesday evening to speak to an experienced, sympathetic family lawyer in confidence, or call one of our offices to arrange an appointment.