UK

Thousands of divorced parents got cut off from their children

Thousands of divorced parents got cut off from their children amid Covid court chaos as pandemic slowed down the system

  • A record 9,000 applied to the courts last year for help to see their children
  • But slowdown in hearings during lockdown means only a handful won assistance
  • Large number of separated parents used lockdown to shut out exes from kids

Thousands of separated and divorced parents have lost contact with their children because of the effects of the pandemic on the courts.

A record 9,000 applied to the courts last year for help to see their children as contact arrangements among divided families broke down, Whitehall figures show.

But the slowdown in hearings during lockdown has meant that only a handful have won assistance from judges to re-establish their rights.

Judges have complained that warring couples now ask the courts to settle the simplest disputes

The effective breakdown of the family court system follows an increase in conflict between separated parents after the imposition of Covid rules last year.

A large number of separated parents with custody of children – almost always mothers – are thought to have taken advantage of lockdown to shut ex-partners out of their children’s lives.

Tensions among separated families have been stoked by a series of errors and official decisions, including mistaken advice from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to not let children leave home to meet their other parent, and a ruling that family contact arguments should go to the back of the queue for court time during lockdowns.

The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett warned MPs last month that there is now a threat to the safety of judges in family courts, ‘where emotions run very high and some disappointed litigants have behaved very badly indeed’.

Figures prepared by the Ministry of Justice show that numbers of complaints to the courts by separated parents shot up by a third as the first lockdown started.

These complaints, in the form of applications to judges for orders enforcing family contact rules, went up from 1,944 in the first three months of 2020 to 2,583 over the three following months.

Overall, there were an unprecedented 8,798 enforcement applications made during 2020, which is 12 per cent up on 2019, and more than four times the total in 2011. But very few of the fathers asking to see their children won the backing of a judge. Just 24 contact enforcement orders were issued in 2020, fewer than one for every 350 applications.

Lawyers blamed the willingness of mothers to use lockdown to break relationships between children and fathers. Katie Welton-Dillon of Hall Brown Family Law said: ‘Some parents seem to have taken advantage of the circumstances and simply stopped contact altogether.

‘The figures which have been published suggest that what we have seen may not be an exception.

Lawyers blamed the willingness of mothers to use lockdown to break relationships between children and fathers

Lawyers blamed the willingness of mothers to use lockdown to break relationships between children and fathers

‘Certainly, almost all the applications to enforce a child arrangements order that I have dealt with over the last year have been because one parent used Covid as something of an excuse to break off contact.’

She said that because of Covid restrictions in the courts, ‘rules were put in place to prioritise certain types of case’, explaining: ‘While situations that carried a risk of serious physical harm to a child or the parent with whom they lived have been dealt with swiftly, enforcement has not.’

Miss Welton-Dillon pointed to the potential for children to suffer ‘serious emotional harm’ if they can’t have a relationship with both parents where safe and possible.

About 1,000 separated couples each week go to the family court to ask a judge to settle whether and how they should share time with their children.

Judges have complained that warring couples now ask the courts to settle the simplest disputes.

In one case last year, a couple went to court to settle which M4 junctions they should meet at to hand over their children.

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