Covid, Contact and Conflict
Published on 14 June, 2021 | Katie Welton-Dillon
The last year has been an intensely difficult period for families across Britain and the rest of the world.
Many households have directly borne some of the physical or financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet for others, the scale of what the rest of the country has been through is only really beginning to emerge now.
Soon after the Government imposed the first set of restrictions in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I spoke to media including LBC’s Shelagh Fogarty about the confusion prompted by the introduction of new rules on how separated or divorced parents should maintain contact with their children.
It was to be a recurrent theme in my workload and that of colleagues at Hall Brown too and one which I wrote about on this ‘blog (https://hallbrown.co.uk/coronavirus-and-childcare-some-helpful-clarification/).
Allegations that some parents were exploiting the natural need for caution to reduce the risk of infection surfaced in the early weeks of lockdown and have persisted ever since.
Now, data published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) bear out how much our experience reflects what was happening across the rest of England and Wales.
Almost 9,000 parents applied to court throughout the whole of last year to enforce orders allowing them time with their children due to contact arrangements breaking down.
To put that in some context, the numbers for 2020 represent a 200 per cent increase on the figure for 2015.
As I’ve been telling Steve Doughty, the Social Affairs Correspondent of the Daily Mail, there was little doubt that some parents used the circumstances as an excuse to stop contact (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9658595/Thousands-divorced-parents-got-cut-children.html).
Furthermore, the MoJ statistics make it possible to trace how the pattern of such disputes was affected by lockdown. Court applications in the first three months in which restrictions were in place rose by one-third on the previous quarter and only returned to a more expected level in the final weeks of the year.
Despite record numbers of applications, however, only 24 parents succeeded in persuading the courts to enforce the orders which had previously been made, setting out how both parents would contribute to their children’s well-being.
During lockdown, the courts themselves had to devise a way of ensuring that they could continue to function and rightfully prioritised certain types of cases, including those which carried a risk of serious physical harm to a child or the parent with which it lived.
Nevertheless, numerous reports have detailed the potential for children to suffer serious emotional harm if they’re unable for whatever reason to maintain a relationship with both their parents where and when, of course, it is safe and possible to do so.
I believe the fact that lockdown meant some of the sanctions open to the courts for those who breach contact orders – such as unpaid work – impossible, may have fuelled the willingness of some parents to deliberately flout the rules.
Given the backlog in cases which courts are working through, we may well not see a return to robust enforcement for some time to come.