The coronavirus pandemic has affected all aspects of life in Scotland since the lockdown was announced on 23rd March, and our court system is no different. Below, our Family Law Partner Lister McKiddie outlines the impact of coronavirus on Family Law Court procedure, and the continued importance of compliance with Court Orders during the pandemic.
In these unprecedented times, it is understandable that you may be worried about your family circumstances, including child contact arrangements and what the constantly changing government guidance means for you and your family. You may be involved in an ongoing court case relating to a divorce or to your children, and worry about how your case will progress, if at all.
Court Procedure during COVID-19
Initially, the Scottish Courts were only dealing with ‘urgent’ family cases, including emergency orders to protect children and adults with incapacity, and urgent residence and contact applications. All other cases were effectively put on hold as the country went into lockdown.
Since the lockdown has eased, the Courts have now entered Phase 1 of their Coronavirus Response. The Courts’ main focus at this time is dealing with the backlog of cases which has built up since March. Priority will be given to undefended cases and those which have resolved and can be finalised. Straightforward paper applications which do not require anyone to attend court to give evidence, such as Simplified Divorce applications, are also being processed.
After Phase 1, new cases will be processed in chronological order (unless they are urgent). It is likely there will be considerable delay processing new cases given the existing backlog. What is considered ‘urgent’ will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Cases involving children will be given priority. There remains a focus on social distancing measures, with the Court conducting remote Hearings wherever possible. In the few cases where witnesses have to attend court to give evidence they must adhere to strict physical distancing arrangements.
Compliance with Court Orders during COVID-19
The pandemic, and the disruption it has caused to all of our lives, has inevitably led some to question court Orders which were granted pre-coronavirus, the terms of which they may feel are no longer appropriate due to government guidelines or otherwise. Given that these Orders are, by their very nature, legally binding, it is vital that you seek to comply with them as fully as possible. Breaching a court Order could have serious consequences for you.
The key piece of advice that has come from the Scottish Courts in relation to child contact cases is that, if you and your partner or ex-partner live in separate homes and take turns to look after your children, you can continue to do so. They also emphasise that if there is a court Order or other formal arrangement in place that should continue to be followed, wherever possible, unless you and your ex-partner agree to change it. If you do agree to change your contact arrangements, it would be sensible to record the agreement somewhere (i.e. in a text or email with one another).
If you cannot reach agreement and you think that facilitating contact would be against government guidance, then you can change the contact arrangement for the child’s safety. If, after the event, the actions of a parent acting on their own in this way are questioned by the other parent in court, the Court is likely to look to see whether each parent acted reasonably and sensibly in the light of the Government guidance in place at that time, together with any specific evidence relating to the child or family.
You can access the most recent guidance from the Scottish Courts (July 2020) here.
These are uncertain and stressful times for parents, and we understand you will be worried about your child’s welfare, particularly as lockdown eases and people return to work and socialising. If you need advice or assistance in relation to any Family Law matter, please contact us to discuss your specific situation. Our offices are currently closed to the public, however, our Family Law team continue to work from home and are available to offer tailored advice. Please get in touch by telephone or e-mail.
In the meantime, the following further resources may also be of help in respect of child contact arrangements during the pandemic: