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Covid-19: Top Questions 29.5.2020

In these challenging times, our teams have been receiving a high volume of queries from family law clients about the impact of Covid-19 on challenging issues such as relationship breakdown, financial negotiations and childcare.

To help our clients with their enquiries, Oliver Hall, partner in our Family team, has collated some of his most frequently asked questions from this week, with his responses, in the hope that this information is useful to you. Each week, we publish an article with a new set of questions but if you have any queries, at any time, please talk to the team for more detailed advice that is specific to you and your particular requirements.

What has happened and is happening about child arrangements during lockdown?

There has been some helpful guidance issued by Cafcass and Ministry of Justice to help separated couples decide how they should manage the arrangements for their children. Cafcass has now launched its Co-Parent Hub, which aims to provide clear information and useful online tools to negotiate arrangements to improve or sustain co-parenting relationships.

Any decision made must have regard to the welfare of the child / children and promote their best interests. Where parents are able to agree that it remains safe, existing arrangements can continue. Initially there was some confusion but, in many cases, parents have acted in the best interest of the children and in some cases, parents have pulled together in these challenging circumstances and are working better than before. Many have demonstrated flexibility and followed the guidance, which will hopefully improve their situation once the restrictions are removed.

The consensus is that where there is children arrangements order in place and it is in the best interests of the children for it to continue, it should be followed with the appropriate social distancing measures followed. Where it is not safe, parents must be adaptable and changes can be agreed and, where possible, consider the arrangements for making up the lost time that may inevitably be the result for one parent.

Inevitably, there will be testing times for parents after Lockdown as they return to work and children return to school and there will be decisions surrounding returning to the previous arrangements and how to manage holidays.

In the event of disagreement, parents should consider mediation and discussing the arrangements in a secure and safe setting but if this is not suitable, the Court is still considering applications. We can assist parents with applications and continue to represent them in those proceedings.

What options are open to those who decide during lockdown that their relationship is at an end and they wish to separate?

This is very difficult for the parties involved and no two cases are the same.

Inevitably, there will be issues about re-housing and how they will be able to share their resources in a practical way that allows both parties to re-house. With the government beginning to release lockdown measures, people may be able to look at alternative accommodation by viewing properties and/or moving in with friends or family where it is safe to do so. Viewings are now possible if social distancing can take place and many agents are now showing a willingness to prepare valuations.

It is not impossible to move things forward when living in the same property. Whilst it’s inevitable that some circumstances will be tense, it is important to accept that this will be temporary and we are living in exceptional times. It may be possible to agree some ground rules whilst living in the same house so that the situation is more manageable.

We can also assist in progressing options for formal separation and divorce. Parties are still able to exchange financial information but it is important to consider the impact of Covid-19 on their resources and the necessity to work with other professional advisors to achieve a fair and workable settlement.

For those already going through court proceedings relating to their divorce, will their case just be postponed until lockdown is over?  If not, how are the courts dealing with existing cases?

The Ministry of Justice has issued guidance stating cases should proceed if they can and certain remote Hearings have generally been successful. The reality is that different Courts in different regions are taking different approaches, which makes it more challenging to give general advice. Some Hearings may not be able to proceed e.g. where there are many witnesses or reports cannot be prepared. These cases have generally been adjourned but, over the last few weeks, Courts have been trying to re-list cases. It is inevitable that there will be a back log of cases for the Courts to deal with over the coming months but we expect to see more cases being dealt with by remote Hearings rather than being immediately being adjourned.

There will be cases that cannot be dealt with remotely and it is not clear when some Final Hearings will proceed but recent guidance suggests that some Courts are putting measures in place to adhere to strict social distancing policies, so that they can start to return to holding more Hearings in person.

People should work on the assumption that their case will still proceed as there is a strong public interest in achieving finality. However, if you do not feel your case can proceed, it is important to follow best advice and guidance, and make an application as soon as possible so the Court can consider whether the Hearing can take place.

What about asset values arising from the pandemic in the context of existing financial negotiations/proceedings?

Much has been predicted in the media about a recession and the impact of Covid-19 on the economy and when it will bounce back so it cannot be denied that there will an impact on many individuals’ resources. Expert advice will be needed and, inevitably, there will be people who are worried about reaching an agreement at this point in time. Where cases involve business assets it may not be possible predict the future and we expect that there may be some applications to reconsider the fairness of a settlement that was reached just before or just as the pandemic was taking hold. There will also be cases where parties just cannot agree a settlement until the outlook for the economy is more certain but there are likely to be others where one party is attempts take financial advantage of the situation.

The property market remains uncertain and it’s impossible to predict how long this will last. It may be that it is too early to predict the impact on property values but it could that the market slows and there are less options in respect to replacement properties.

Where there are pensions these must not be overlooked. Current, accurate, values of pensions should be obtained. The value of DC pensions in particular seem to have been impacted where they are predominately made up of share portfolios but private sector DB schemes have also been affected. Expert pension advice will be needed to make sure any settlement is fair but, in cases where there may only be one DC scheme, both parties could be equally impacted, so options such as PSO can be explored. Furthermore, the impact on public sector DB may be lessened and the prospect of reaching an agreement may be greater.

What about dispute resolution?  What options are available to address issues arising from relationship breakdown in the present circumstances?

We have experienced that, for many reasons, clients are considering alternative methods to resolve their disputes outside of Court owing to the factors explored above. Some of the options include:

  • We have been extremely busy conducting remote mediations where, as mediators, we can act impartially and assist clients to discuss their issues in a confidential and safe venue. The are no formal timetables and clients can engage quickly to avoid waiting months for Court Hearings.
  • Other successful methods have included parties engaging in private Financial Dispute Resolution Hearings where an impartial and suitably qualified professional, not connected to their case, is able to conduct the Hearings outside of the Court process.
  • We are also able to continue to facilitate collaborative cases and arrange for meetings with clients and other collaboratively trained professionals to discuss their issues in the hope of helping them reach an agreement.

Our team is on hand to help you, your business and your family however we can, so please get in touch with us on 01482 325242 or email enquiries@andrewjackson.co.uk

Correct as of 3pm on 29.5.2020

 

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