COVID-19 has caused a great wave of issues throughout our community. One of those issues has been the significant increase in disputes regarding the care of children in separated families. Some parents have elected to depart from the usual care arrangements without consultation with their counterpart. This has resulted in a variety of disputes concerning the contravention of an order whereby a parent has intentionally failed to comply with an order. It has also aggravated issues that would have otherwise remained dormant.
The increased of the rising disputes is evident by the need by the Family Court to create a special Court list for parent related disputes that arise due to the coronavirus. [See: http://www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/about/news/jpd032020]
The general comments by the Family Court have been that parties need to use common sense as a result of their response to the challenges created by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, such common sense is not always possible among parents because there is a level of animosity which makes it very difficult for reasonable discussions to take place.
Kardos & Harmon  FamCA 328 (7 May 2020) is a recent judgement in the family Court which highlights the need for parents to be pragmatic when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In that matter, the father lived in Brisbane and made an application that final orders had been contravened by the mother who resides in Adelaide. The mother contended that the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a reasonable excuse for her not to travel to Brisbane to deliver the child. The court found that the mother had not contravened the final orders and had established that she had a reasonable excuse for non-compliance with them. The Court went on to vary the final orders to facilitate the father spending time with the child. The net effect of the court’s orders were that the father would need to travel to Adelaide, and be subject to quarantine requirements, should he wish to see the child however in the event that he did not travel to Adelaide then the child would have make up time with him at a later date.
Kardos & Harmon provides some guidance to parents in different states or territories, but it becomes more difficult for those within the same state. In those cases, whether there is a reasonable excuse is a far more difficult question to answer. Those parents who tie themselves to the public health notifications (such as https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/public+content/sa+health+internet/conditions/infectious+diseases/covid+2019/coronavirus+disease+2019+covid-19), which are considered by the Court, will most probably find it difficult as the restrictions ease. Not long ago most state governments were considering whether schools would be open or not and parents choosing to keep children at home for their safety. Things have changed dramatically since then and now what was once a reasonable step would now be seen as unreasonable. This should cause great alarm for those parents who have acted unilaterally to contravene orders under the guise of a reasonable step in response to COVID-19. In hindsight, their actions will not be viewed positively.
Different judges will have different interpretations of when a party is acting from a health and well-being approach as opposed to capitalising or taking advantage of the crisis. It would depend on the context and history of the particular matter and the nature of the contravention. The result is that parents must seek legal advice to understand their position in light of their specific circumstances. Those who are opportunistically taking advantage of some of the restrictions should be immediately cautioned and asked to reconsider their position.
In addition to getting specific legal advice about parents breaching orders because of COVID-19 restrictions, there are also resources that can help guide parents with the difficulties of managing parenting during the pandemic. One of those resources has been produced by the Law Council of Australia and can be found below. It provides practical steps that can assist parent’s with coping.
The time taken to traverse the Family Court system is increasing exponentially with these matters. There is always an opportunity to privately mediate the issues in order to reach a pragmatic compromise however if that is not possible then matters must be advanced as a priority rather than being delayed as each day goes by.