Musings from Maeve O’Higgins, head of family law, on the impacts of Covid-19 on family law
There have been many heartwarming stories of people helping others – such as the elderly and more vulnerable members of our society – at this difficult time, which provides many opportunities for the kindness of strangers. The lockdown has brought out the best in some people in terms of demonstrating kindness and consideration, but it has also brought out the worst in other people in terms of the treatment of their family members, the people they should care most about – their children and partners/ex-partners.
Many of us are finding the restrictions of the lockdown, stuck at home with our families 24/7, when we are used to the freedom of going out to work and socialising, very challenging and some cynical family lawyers have suggested that this will be a boom time for us lawyers (like an extended Christmas), and that we can expect a record number of new family clients coming to us, seeking divorces.
However for people at home with an abusive, controlling partner the current situation can be a nightmare, particularly when the opportunities to escape a dangerous situation (e.g. trips to the shops or the park, or going out to take the children to or from school) can be very limited. Isolating a victim of abuse from her support network of family and friends is a frequent pattern of behaviour of abusers and now, with all the additional pressures, there has been a substantial increase in the incidence of domestic abuse during the period of the lockdown in the UK, as well as a chilling increase in the number of women murdered by their partners, compared with previous periods.
The Metropolitan police say they are arresting about 100 people a day in London for offences connected with domestic abuse but the massive increase in the number of number of calls being received by Refuge, the main support organisation for the victims of domestic abuse, suggests that the numbers (of mainly women and children) suffering such abuse are much higher than the number of abusers being arrested.
Another important issue is what happens to the children of divorced and separated parents, who are used to spending time with both their parents and moving regularly between two households. The guidance issued by the Government for divorced and separated parents makes it clear that the children of divorced and separated parents can continue to spend time with both their parents and move between their different homes, so long as no one is ill. Parents are encouraged to put aside their differences and work together to sort out sensible arrangements between themselves that work for their individual families, prioritising the safety of their children and their emotional needs. Unfortunately, for many separated parents, communication with the other parent is fraught and difficult at the best of times, and so is much more difficult now. The family justice system (like the NHS) has been under resourced for years and the pressures on the courts brought about by lockdown makes the enforcement of contact arrangements that are not working, or have broken down completely, very difficult for separated parents.
Finally, people are not supposed to move house at this time, so they are unable to finalise the financial aspects of their separation or divorce by selling their house or renting another property, and are obliged remain living under the same roof, notwithstanding the breakdown of the couple relationship, adding to the stresses of an already stressful situation.
As a result of all this, since I started working from home in March 2020 I have been kept busy, trying to help my clients negotiate the issues thrown up by the COVID-19 situation and struggling with the technology to enable court applications to be dealt with virtually, on top of all the usual legal issues that arise when a family relationship breaks down.
This article is provided for general information only and is not intended to be nor should it be relied upon as legal advice in relation to any particular matter. If you would like to discuss any aspect of it or family law please contact Maeve O’Higgins at email@example.com.