COVID-19: the pandemic that is currently shaking and jeopardising the entire world. Numerous countries are placed on lock-down. Both small and large businesses are struggling with many even collapsing. Infected people are, for a fact, dead, dying, or recovering. Lives are upturned. People are frightened. People are losing their jobs.
The bitter reality brought to us by the virus is a hard pill to swallow. Multiple things have changed, and Australia’s Family Court is not spared from that change. Restrictions are being imposed, and changes are made to the procedures of the Family Court.
The changes made to the Court are temporary and are not placed in the Rules of the Court. The revised systems involve the witnessing of affidavits, listing arrangements of hearing, filing of court documents, procedures of the courtroom, child dispute services, and viewing subpoenas. In addition, guidance notes have been issued by the Family Court to the parents concerning parenting orders and border restrictions. The Court is also closely monitoring any announcements and advice regarding the COVID-19 and its management.
On 31 March 2020, the Family Law Court issued the Joint Practice Direction 2 of 202 – Special Measures in Response to COVID-19. This applies to proceedings filed before or after 31 March 2020 and shall remain in effect until and unless revoked. Legal practitioners and parties are obliged to follow the protocols and measures.
The registry services of the Family Law Court have been provided via telephone and online services since 24 March 2020. Legal practitioners and lawyers need to eFile or eLodge all documents to facilitate matters that are being dealt with electronically. In the case of a failure in eFiling or eLodging the documents, an email to the registry for electronic filing has to be sent. Hard copies of the documents should not be sent to the registry.
Furthermore, the Court collaborates with Microsoft Teams, and the chance for electronic hearings is lofty. With that, the Court will attempt to conduct as many hearings as possible. A professional will be made to assist the Court in the use of technology. However, cases that require face to face hearing will be placed on a national pool and would be listed as soon as things go back to normal.
The Court remains open. Parents may develop consent orders altering parenting orders and file these virtually or electronically with the court. Where there is no possibility to reach an agreement yet, or it is difficult and perilous to do so, a variation order may be applied to the Court.
In these changing times, almost all transactions take place virtually. That is evident in the previous paragraphs of this article. But do these virtual transactions cover Parenting orders? The Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia published a top 10 guides for separated parents during COVID-19.
It is noted in the guide that parents separated during the COVID-19 must meet all responsibilities under those terms unless a valid reason applies. If arrangements cannot be met, common sense must be used in looking for solutions. Parents must act reasonably if time arrangement with the other parent or family members is not possible to follow, parties may utilize digital communication (e.g. e-mailing, video chatting, text messaging).
Restrictions made because of the COVID-19 resulted in complexities in many aspects, including parenting orders. The closure of borders has left the children unable to visit their parent’s homes or guardians. In cases like these, the Court may step in to formulate other possible arrangements while such restrictions are in place.
Furthermore, parents are highly encouraged to communicate with each other and their lawyers about the means and solutions available to comply with the current orders and arrangements. As always, the focus should primarily be on the child’s best interests. Take note that any changes made or any alternative agreement must be put into writing along with the lawyer’s signatory.
If the child is manifesting symptoms of the virus, the other party must be informed and should respond appropriately. It is crucial for the parties to be open and truthful with each other, specifically about health concerns. If a risk of exposure to the virus took place, do not be hesitant to inform the other party. This is for the child’s welfare.
During these trying times, the parties must disregard bitterness among each other, if any, and must work together to provide a much safer place for their child. The disrupted routines and the tight restrictions could be difficult for the child, hence both parents play a significant role in assisting the child to cope with the sudden changes. Amid the pandemic, learning must still be fostered and this is entirely possible if both parents work together.
Restrictions effect changes and disrupts several custody arrangements. Along with these changes is an increased risk of domestic abuse and violence. Hence, the Court sees to it that applications that are eligible to be dealt with at Court, particularly those involving issues of risk and violence, shall receive immediate attention and shall be triaged by a registrar who would evaluate the needs of the case. The case would then be assigned to be heard by a judge within 72 hours of assessment.
Children’s suffering from domestic violence is a grave issue and must be given swift action. Exposure to domestic violence is as risky as exposure to the COVID-19, hence it is crucial for the Court to intervene. After all, agreements and orders are made with the child’s welfare and protection in mind.
The COVID-19 crisis is not a battle particular only to the government, but a battle that affects families as well. Fortunately, the Family Court of Australia has taken abrupt action to continually serve the people and protect the welfare of the children. Rest assured that all facets of whatever possible issues and problems of the family have been taken into consideration, and solutions have been mapped out.
Note on Unified Lawyers Approach
We are also doing our share to help combat the spread of COVID-19 whilst also still help and servicing our clients. Some steps we are taking include:
- Following the NSW Government protocols
- If necessary, allowing our family lawyers to work remotely
- Offering clients online/remote video consultations
- In-office team following safe distancing
- Ensuring hand sanitisers are provided to all staff on their workstations, front desk reception and boardroom
- Providing access to our lawyers to mental health professionals
- Ensuring all unwell staff, visitors and clients do not enter the office