COVID 19: Courts will hear applications for breach of maintenance or access: What You Need to Know

Many parents have faced difficulties in exercising access to their children during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, those with court-ordered access can now bring an application to the District Court for breaches of those orders. It is expected that any lost time will have to be made up. Guidelines have been issued to the courts to ensure that access arrangements are made in a manner that is consistent with public health measures.

As the pandemic continues, courts are finally hearing access and maintenance applications that were previously adjourned due to COVID-19 restrictions. Parents can now seek to vary maintenance orders where their financial circumstances have changed due to the pandemic. Additionally, the courts have issued guidelines on access, which provide advice on how to manage access arrangements in a manner that is consistent with public health measures.

Key Takeaways

  • Parents with court-ordered access can bring an application to the District Court for breaches of those orders.
  • Guidelines have been issued to the courts to ensure that access arrangements are made in a manner that is consistent with public health measures.
  • Courts are finally hearing access and maintenance applications that were previously adjourned due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Courts to Finally Hear Access and Maintenance Applications

On 18th May 2020, the District Court began hearing applications and hearings for breaches of maintenance or access during the emergency period (from March 2020) Independent.ie. Previously, only urgent applications were being heard, and breaches of access and/or maintenance were not classified as urgent applications. This move allowed litigants to bring non-urgent applications to court, which included maintenance and access disputes.


Guidelines on Access

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Law Society of Ireland has published guidelines on access to help parents navigate the challenges of ensuring their children’s safety while also complying with court orders. The guidelines state that court orders in relation to access remain in place and should be complied with to the greatest degree possible in the circumstances. Parents are advised to have a copy of the court order with them when travelling for access. Children are allowed to move between parents’ homes for access, and COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to ignore a court order.

If there is no court order in place and an arrangement has been working between parents, this should continue, save in exceptional circumstances. It is important that common sense prevails in relation to access, in the current climate. The best outcome for children is for parents to contact each other to set out their concerns and suggest ideas for practical solutions that can be put in place. The health concerns of parents, their children and the extended family need to be considered when sorting out arrangements.

Even if there is a court order in place, parents can come to their own arrangements for additional or alternative remote contact, such as telephone, Skype, Facetime or WhatsApp, to allow children to have extensive contact with the other parent. Parents should make a note of this temporary agreement by text or email. These current restrictions mean that the detail of every access order may not be fully implementable, but the responsibility and expectation of parents is to make every effort to allow children to continue to have access to the other parent in a safe, alternative way.

The health and safety of children and family members, especially the elderly, grandparents and those with an underlying medical condition, must be a priority. If one parent is living with his/her parents, every effort should be made to ensure the grandparents are not put at risk .

Access with parents working in frontline services should continue as normal, except in exceptional circumstances. These parents will, of course, have received advice from their places of work in relation to contact with their families. This advice should be shared with the other parent and respected by all.

If a child has a compromised immune system, the health and safety of the child has to take precedence, and all measures must be taken to protect the child. The best interests of the child must be the paramount consideration.

Parents should both engage in social distancing, abide by the rules concerning non-interaction with third parties, and the stay at home direction, and be able to give clear assurances in this regard. If parents are unable to agree access during this time, they should engage in mediation to resolve difficulties. If mediation is unavailable or unsuccessful, the assistance of solicitors may help in achieving a temporary agreement.

In summary, the guidelines on access during COVID-19 emphasize the importance of complying with court orders to the greatest degree possible and prioritizing the health and safety of children and family members. Parents are encouraged to use common sense and to work together to find practical solutions that allow children to have access to the other parent in a safe, alternative way. Parents can also come to their own arrangements for additional or alternative remote contact. If parents are unable to agree on access, mediation or the assistance of solicitors may help in achieving a temporary agreement.

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