The COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on families and the wider Australian community. Households and individuals are experiencing higher levels of stress and financial uncertainty. Combined with the isolation required to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many family situations, including those already under pressure, are expected to deteriorate in the coming months.
Evidence from the aftermath of previous crises, such as the recent bushfires, suggests a spike in domestic abuse and violence is looming. Family law and mediation professionals are already reporting an increase in online searches for family dispute services. Legal Aid is also reporting increased demand for their services.
DDCS Lawyers partner Di Simpson says family violence remains a national emergency and a major public health concern. As enforced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 tighten, this threat is expected to increase, with women and children being at greatest risk of harm.
Simpson says stress and isolation will likely generate a range of issues, from problems with the care arrangements for children to serious cases of domestic violence and abuse. However, help remains available. While so many businesses and services have been shut down, a range of family law services remain open to assist families, including the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.
“Judges, lawyers and mediation services are committed to providing assistance to those who need it,” said Ms Simpson. “While there are some changes to the courts’ operations to ensure the protection of staff and users of the courts, they remain open to assist Australian families in these challenging times.”
Ms Simpson said the court will triage matters coming before it.
“The court will do everything in its power to help, including after hours hearings conducted via videoconferencing or by telephone. Urgent and serious matters will be dealt with promptly, including after hours, if really urgent. The ACT Magistrates Court will still hear application for family violence orders.”
Ms Simpson said even during a time of disruption or upheaval, parents and carers are still expected to comply with court orders and agreements in relation to parenting arrangements unless there are proper grounds not to do so. This includes facilitating time being spent by children with each parent or carer according to parenting orders.
“Everyone is feeling anxious and there may be situations that make strict compliance with current court orders very difficult, if not impossible,” she said. “For example, orders may stipulate changeover to occur at school but now school is closed. Or there may be genuine safety issues that have arisen where one parent, or someone in close contact with that parent, has been exposed to COVID-19. This may restrict the safe movement of a child from one house to another. People should try to find solutions that allow them to meet their obligations, and make some temporary arrangements.”
As a first step, Ms Simpson recommended parties should communicate with each other and attempt to find a practical solution to these difficulties.
“Parents or carers need to act reasonably. Each parent should always consider the safety and best interests of the child, but they should try to be flexible and appreciate the concerns of the other parent when attempting to reach new arrangements. If you are able to reach an agreement, put this agreement in writing.”
Ms Simpson said parents and carers having difficulty can arrange to mediate their differences through lawyers and other dispute resolution services. “Lawyers have moved away from face to face meetings to video conferencing, but we are able to help everyone in a safe and secure environment. Ultimately, if the parents or carers are unable to agree, or one or both parents have real concerns about what is happening – especially about safety – the parties are able to approach the court electronically to seek a variation of the orders.
“If you can work it out yourselves with a bit of give and take, that is a much better plan.
“While government directions are changing daily, be assured that help has not gone into hibernation. Legal Aid, the courts and lawyers are still working to take care of their clients and to help people in such uncertain times.”
If you or your child is in immediate danger, please contact local police.
If you need advice on separation, family conflict or parenting disputes, as a starting point, you can contact the Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321.