At the time of writing, schools and courts are still open but we are all anticipating a time in the very near future (possibly by the time this article is published) that they will not be. The markets are collapsing around us. What is the impact on families who are separating? There are issues surrounding the care of children, the division of finances and process. Most concerning are questions about those living in difficult domestic arrangements where they feel threatened or controlled and those are addressed below.
One would hope that in the vast majority of cases people will now, more than ever, put their efforts into co-parenting effectively. Those with arrangements already in place will hopefully find ways through the chaos to meet their children’s needs using the framework of the agreements already in place. In many cases, if schools close, term-time arrangements should be the starting point for contact arrangements. However, there will need to be flexibility around new working arrangements. Where grandparents have previously been relied upon for childcare, there will need to be consideration for their particular vulnerabilities. Decisions will need to be made to try and build a new routine which is as sustainable as it is flexible. People are encouraged to do this quickly to provide children, who are frightened by everything going on around them, with stability as quickly as possible.
Of course there are some cases where an amicable arrangement is not going to work. In those cases, parents need their decisions to be driven by what is best for their children. Where parents cannot agree what that is, they will need to turn to solicitors for advice. We strongly recommend doing so quickly and ensuring that the support structures are in place now, so that if and when things become impossible to manage at a co-parenting level, there is a back-up plan for solicitor and potentially court (while it remains open) intervention.
There are endless ways in which the economic fluctuations can advantage some parties and disadvantage others. We cannot pretend that this is not the case. Cash offers which were made against the backdrop of an agreed asset schedule will be reduced. Companies which seemed to support financial claims will collapse, leaving the entire family vulnerable to a huge drop in lifestyle. Pressure will be heaped on parties to spend less. In some cases, maintenance claims will be unsustainable as jobs are lost. Against this, there will be arguments about how long these fluctuations will be place, whether the impact will be long-lasting and if so, how long-lasting. People will want to see the transfer of assets in specie but that might realise losses and/or delay the division of matrimonial assets between parties. No doubt there will be applications for adjournments for spurious reasons connected to the health aspects of what is going on around us but which might equally relate to financial advantage. Your advisors are already thinking about these questions and will have addressed the specifics of your case with you, but if you have any concerns, raise them so you can work through the best strategic way to address the issues.
It is highly likely that the courts will close for all but the most urgent matters. We cannot pretend that this will not impact on cases. Even now, while the courts are open, there is uncertainty about whether cases will go ahead. Judges are adjourning hearings on the day, as they are unable to attend court. We cannot be certain that witnesses will attend. Again, there are strategic advantages being sought and obtained. To overcome this, the profession is moving at an incredible rate and embracing remote hearings and more determinative forms of alternative dispute resolution like arbitration. We have the skills and we have technology. Now we have the occasion, and everyone is working to ensure that cases can be heard and determined appropriately and in good time. Planning is essential as there will need to be a degree of agreement between parties about how to deal with each case.
Some people are extremely vulnerable and need the court to support them. They are typically living in domestic arrangements or co-parenting with people who threaten and abuse them. The conduct is likely to be exacerbated during this period of uncertainty, as those who abuse feel themselves to be exposed and insecure. As a result, they may well increase their attempts to control what they feel they can, including those they live with.
The impact on those who have to live with abusive partners during a period of self-isolation is incredibly worrying. These are victims of abuse who will be forced, or at least advised, to expose themselves to increased abuse, be it physical or emotional. It is not enough to invite them to live through this period and keep diary notes. We know that the impact of prolonged periods of abuse will be powerful and long-lasting and we have never known a period when victims have been systematically told to increase their exposure to domestic abuse. It is very frightening. The best protection is to avoid self-isolating within an abusive relationship. Legal professionals are available throughout this period to help you achieve that. It is a step many victims of abuse have historically avoided taking but in the current circumstances, it needs to be addressed before the country goes into lockdown and the options become limited. Do not delay obtaining advice if you or your loved ones are exposed to abusive relationships.