Separated parents face all sorts of challenges in relation to contact but these are always amplified around times of celebration. Each year in the run up to Christmas the Courts are filled with parents who simple cannot agree on where their children should be in the festive season. Covid has made this, already stressful time, a hundred times more difficult.
The last place anyone wants to be at Christmas is attending court (virtually or in person) and equally it seems a shame that parents are spending their money on lawyers instead of Christmas presents so here is my guide to sorting out Christmas contact in a pandemic.
General Rules for Christmas contact
What will the courts do?
The courts ALWAYS want Christmas shared between the parent. In 15 years of going to court I have never seen a successful argument stating that one parent should have Christmas every year. It does not matter if it means splitting up siblings or that they’ll miss their Granny who is staying, the Court always decide it must be alternated or shared in some way. Of course anything can be done by agreement, which is why it is a better way to go.
Although the courts want Christmas shared they do not have a set way to do that except that they always alternate whatever arrangement is made. Frankly, each Judge /magistrate may have a different view of what a good arrangement is and if you leave it up to them anything could happen. I have had cases where the Magistrates have given one parent from the break up of school on 20th December until New Year’s Eve and the other then back till school ( on an alternating basis) which meant that each year one parent missed out on the whole of Christmas. The truth is that you really need to do whatever you can to not end up before a court on this issue.
If you need some help about what would be a more usual way of splitting Christmas here are some common arrangements:
a. One parent has Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and the other has Boxing Day until the next day and then the arrangement swaps round the next year.
b. If the parents/families live close together sometimes Christmas Day itself can be split either before lunch or in the evening. Again the court would expect the person who has Christmas Eve and Christmas Day morning one year to have Christmas Day afternoon and Boxing Day the next year.
c. One parent has from school until Boxing Day morning and the other has from boxing day back to school
Keeping the temperature down
Christmas is an emotional subject. Especially this year. It is always going to be hard to think of your children not waking up with you to open their presents but there are some ways to make the discussions easier:
a. Think about it in advance- not just days or weeks in advance in advance but months. It feels much less emotional to discuss Christmas in July than when it is almost upon us. Also it gives everyone time to get used to the idea and make appropriate plans.
b. Communication about Christmas is best done in writing, preferably over email. It creates a bit of distance and gives everyone time to think through what is best. Face to face conversations, especially without warning, are far more likely to end in upset.
c. Never discuss it in front of the children or involve the children in the decisions. It puts the children in a terrible position and also is a sure fire way to enrage the other parent. Adult issues such as contact arrangements need to be kept between the adults.
Once you have got a plan about how to split Christmas stick to it! Unless something entirely earth shattering happens (injury/death/ birth etc) it should run as expected. You will have had plenty of notice so any arrangements should be worked around in advance. The Courts do not like it if someone wants to move arrangements because of a pantomime booking or a Christmas party. Ultimately the child/ren having a good relationship with each parent and being able to enjoy time with both of them at Christmas is far more important than a party.
Impact of Covid
The above rules are true in a pandemic free world (and still a good guide within one) but what is the impact of Covid and the lockdown restrictions?
Further Lockdown: The Government has remained clear that there is an exemption to the lockdown rules for children travelling between separated parents for the purposes of contact. Therefore even if we are locked down again that would not be a barrier to Christmas contact.
Rule of 6: The Government has always been clear that contact between children and parents can be continued and is not effected by the rule of six. Therefore if you have children that live in different places they can all still come together for Christmas however many in number they are. Children count as part of the household bubble for both parent’s household.
Travelling between Tiers: This is a slightly less clear picture. If your child is travelling within in a tier (whichever tier that might be) then there is no difficulty with this. This includes moving between different areas of the country that are in the same tier. If your child is travelling from a lower tier to a higher tier or vice versa there was initially some confusion about whether this was allowed. Although no specific guidance on this point has been given there is now a clear position that you can form childcare support bubbles across tiers. It seems impossible then that this would not include a child travelling for contact with separated parents. This rule then should not stop Christmas or other contact either.
Particular vulnerability to Covid of children or other adults in a household: In a situation where a child or an adult living in the primary residence of that child is very vulnerable the court may agree that this will be an exceptional year. That would particularly be the case if there was added risk to one parent’s position (eg one parent was a nurse and the other was shielding or could work from home) so that the risk of contracting Covid was significantly increased by moving between the parent’s homes. If you find yourself in this position then clear communication is essential. Also every effort should be made to allow generous contact in any safe way (eg socially distanced contact or video phone contact) to ensure the child still has the opportunity to enjoy Christmas with both parents.
Difference of approach to Covid between parents: The courts have been very aware that there is a great deal of anxiety around Covid and that different people have different attitudes to what is and what is not safe. They have been clear that in this unprecedented time genuine anxieties should not be easily dismissed by the courts. However the court would need to be satisfied that a consistent approach to Covid was being adopted and the anxiety was genuine rather than Covid just being used as an excuse to prevent contact. For example if a parent was happily taking the children out and about, visiting friends houses etc and then said they did not think it was safe to visit the other parent that is unlikely to be taken seriously. If they are being cautious across the board and further can show that the other parent is not behaving in a similar fashion that might be enough to convince a court that contact should be adapted for this year. Even then (as above) it would be important to ensure all methods of safe contact were used to ensure the child gets to still enjoy time with the other parent.
Overall then, unless there are particular vulnerabilities or genuine anxieties, there is no reason why Christmas contact should not go ahead as normal, even if the rest of Christmas is not! The fact of the pandemic is not enough to change the presumptions of a shared Christmas being in a child’s best interest. As in normal times the Court is only interested in the welfare of the child and if there are no specific safety concerns then they will decide to share Christmas between the parents. As with everything child related the key is always good and early communication between parents.