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COVID-19 may play havoc with divorced parents’ March break plans

Thursday, March 19, 2020 @ 12:32 PM | By Ron Shulman

Ron Shulman %>
Ron Shulman
As the global impact of COVID-19 continues to develop, we are discovering the many unforeseen ways it affects the everyday lives of Canadians. For the segment of our population consisting of separated or divorced parents who had travel or other plans for their children over March break, the full ramifications of the pandemic are unfolding.

From the family law perspective specifically, here are the areas of potential impact that we see for parents during the March break period.

Changes to travel plans

March break is a popular time for parents to book holidays with children. But due to fears related to COVID-19, many airlines are cancelling flights, and some countries — including popular tourist destinations like Italy — are on full lockdown. For every Canadian who has travelled anywhere outside Canada, including to the U.S., the government has now mandated a 14-day self-isolation protocol.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, family law principles call for separated and divorced parents to agree on any March break travel plans involving their child. Since travel now entails serious new health risks, this principle becomes even more important. One parent’s long-standing plan to take a child on a cruise holiday or to Europe is no longer viable, despite having been pre-agreed with the other parent at the time of booking. Changes or even outright cancellation is now needed, if only because of government-imposed travel bans and restrictions.  

Even if it is technically feasible to still make the trip, it may not be advisable due to health concerns. Plus, the newly required 14-day self-isolation period for all travellers out of the country can also impact the custodial or access time of the non-travelling parent afterwards.

The decision by parents as to what is in the child’s best interests will be an individual one. Ideally parents should try to agree on how best to address their joint concerns, for example by adjusting the destination or trip duration, or by cancelling outright if necessary.  

Less ideal is the scenario where the decision merely becomes a new frontier on which the parents do not see eye-to-eye. In that case, a scheduled trip abroad by one of them could prompt a visit to the local court by the other: the objecting parent has the right to apply for a court injunction to try to stop the trip with the child from taking place.

Currently, the courts are not closed, but are hearing only urgent and emergency cases, and may accommodate electronic forms of hearings. The courts have suspended normal operations, but are continuing to function. Situations such as imminent travel, depending on circumstances, may qualify for the urgency, and would need to be considered by the courts on a case-by-case basis.

Adjustments to parenting schedules

To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission between children and families, organized March break camps have been cancelled and daycare programs have been temporarily suspended. As has also been announced recently, the Ontario government has taken the extraordinary measure of closing public schools for the two-week period following March break.

Especially for divorced and separated parents who work outside the home, this extended hiatus may have come as an unpleasant surprise. To accommodate for it, they may need to arrange new childcare to cover their working hours, or they may need to adjust their pre-agreed parenting schedule during the hiatus. Again, this is an area where parents will have to co-operate on a solution that works for everyone, with the primary focus being on what is in the best interests of the child.

Inaccessibility of family courts

While the health system is being overloaded by the demands prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the judicial system could be on the brink of coming to a screeching halt. As of March 13, the Ontario courts — including those hearing family law matters — have already issued a notice to the public, the legal profession and the media. The notice advised of suspending regular operations.

For now, these pertain to self-isolation measures for certain categories of at-risk individuals. However, since the virus is likely to continue to spread, the courts may have to temporarily suspend their operations entirely. This of course would impact both new family law proceedings as well as the resolution of those that are already underway.

What does the future hold?

With the widespread government directives to avoid unnecessary travel and to self-isolate, and with air travel and other transportation options being cancelled by providers, it will be only the rare pre-planned March break trip that remains unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But looking beyond that early-spring period, the prospect of travelling anywhere these days will remain fraught with risk. For separated and divorced parents, it can also be ripe for added conflict — which may not be easily redressed due to urgency and potentially curtailed access to the family court system (if needed). Especially in this time of crisis, the best solution as always is for parents to try to work together to make the best decision for their child.

Ron Shulman, a certified specialist in family law, is the founder and managing partner of Shulman & Partners LLP, an exclusive family law practice focused on the resolution of conflicts and ensuring clients are prepared to confidently move on with their lives.

Photo credit / Tanaonte ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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