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Separated parents and travel with children following Coronavirus outbreak

Should parents proceed with their proposed holiday plans despite the coronavirus outbreak, and what should happen if separated parents are unable to…

Spring is on its way, and many separated parents have been looking forward to taking their children on holiday over the long Easter break or, indeed, during the fast approaching summer months. Should, however, parents proceed with their proposed holiday plans despite the coronavirus outbreak, and what should happen if separated parents are unable to agree pending travel plans?

Firstly, do separated parents have to secure the consent of the other parent prior to travel?

Whether the other parent’s consent is required depends on who has parental responsibility for the child and whether there is a Court Order in place. If both parents have parental responsibility, neither can take the child out of the jurisdiction of England and Wales for the purposes of a holiday without the permission of the other unless:

  1. There is a Court Order in place which grants permission for the child to be taken abroad.
  2. There is a Child Arrangements Order in place which states who the child is to live with. In this scenario the parent in whose favour the order has been made can take the child out of the jurisdiction for up to four weeks without the permission of the other parent, unless to do so would be in direct contravention of a Court Order or any contact arrangements.

Travel plans

Most people plan their holidays several months in advance, and many parents may find themselves in the unenviable position whereby, because of the coronavirus outbreak, they are now having serious reservations about a holiday or trip to which they have previously consented. Similarly, other parents may have been approached by their former partners requesting their consent in respect of a proposed holiday to a country which has been significantly impacted by coronavirus.

Holiday destinations to avoid

As things stand, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) is currently advising against all travel to Hubei Provence in China and the cities of Daegu, Cheongdo and Gyeongsan in South Korea. It is also advising against all nonessential travel to the rest of mainland China and Italy. If therefore a parent has arranged travel to one of these destinations it may be prudent to consider cancelling or postponing the trip.

The FCO is not presently advising against travel to any other country or territory due to the coronavirus outbreak, but the situation is under constant review and anyone planning a holiday in the near future is advised to monitor the situation closely.

Many parents, however, are not only concerned about the final destination but are also anxious about their child travelling on public transport and coming into contact with large numbers of the general public. In particular, parents worry about their child sharing enclosed spaces and recycled air from air conditioning systems. Airports, themselves, are a hub for contamination, with travellers from all over the World passing in close proximity.

Media hype or right to be cautious?

The approach taken by parents to the outbreak mirrors the approach taken by the wider population. Some parents are extremely worried about the current situation and are keen to do everything within their power to avoid exposing their children to coronavirus, whilst other parents take a more laid back approach, believing that the virus is no worse than seasonal flu and that the media hype is unwarranted.

What if agreement cannot be reached?

In most cases, parents will be able to agree on whether a planned holiday is in the best interests of their child and whether it should go ahead. In some instances, however, agreement will not be possible, particularly where one parent is insisting on taking the child to a country which has been significantly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak and the other parent has strong objections to the child accompanying them on the trip. In such circumstances, it may become necessary to apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order, restricting the travel of the other parent and preventing them from taking the child on the proposed holiday. This may still be necessary where the parent proposing the holiday requires the other parent’s consent if the other parent has reason to believe that their former partner may attempt to take the child on the holiday without their consent.

Conversely, if the parent who has booked the trip takes the view that the other parent is overreacting and withholding their consent to the holiday unreasonably, then it is open to them to apply to the court for what is known as a Specific Issue Order.

Regardless of which application is made, the primary consideration of the court will be the welfare of the child; the court will be keen to ensure that any order imposed upon the parties is not only in the best interests of the child but does not compromise their health and safety. It is therefore likely that the court will be heavily influenced by the guidance issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Contingency plan

Given the rate at which the number of people being diagnosed with coronavirus is increasing worldwide on a daily basis, separated parents are urged to instigate urgent discussions with their former partner with a view to agreeing not only future travel arrangements but also a contingency plan in the event that the situation continues to escalate in the UK. In particular, separated parents should consider who will care for their children in the event that schools are closed or whole households are forced to isolate in the near future. Parents may be worried about breaching Court Orders in a lockdown situation, particular where they provide for a shared care arrangement. Others may use isolation as an excuse to deny the other parent contact with the child.

Child support may also become an issue if parents are forced to take unpaid leave from work and arrears may accrue. Whilst discussions around such topics may be difficult to have with your former partner, it may be wise to grasp the nettle now and agree on a plan of action, so as to avoid conflict and a possible court application in the future.

If the content of this update raises any issues for you, or you would like to discuss, please liaise with Rachel Lim or learn more about our child law solicitors.

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