Estranged couples do not have to stick to court orders during coronavirus crisis

If both parties agree, orders on visitation and maintenance can be altered

An Garda Síochána has stressed that the coronavirus crisis will not affect its ability to respond to domestic violence calls. File photograph:  Colin Keegan/Collins

An Garda Síochána has stressed that the coronavirus crisis will not affect its ability to respond to domestic violence calls. File photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins

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The president of the District Court has said estranged couples are free to vary family court orders during the coronavirus crisis as long as both parties agree.

District Court president Judge Colin Daly urged parents to communicate with each other and use video technology to facilitate child access as the Family Courts move to dealing almost exclusively with emergency domestic-violence cases during the pandemic.

The vast majority of family law cases involving maintenance and child visitation are being adjourned until the worst of the pandemic has passed. In Dublin only one court is sitting to deal with interim barring orders.

Gardaí and domestic-violence groups are concerned the stress of the current crisis and the increased amount of time people must stay in their homes will lead to a greater risk of domestic violence.

The judge said domestic violence applications “will continue to be given priority, so if you need a protection or interim barring order you can still come to court”.

Regarding other family law matters, the judge said that if both parents agree, court orders can be “temporarily varied”. He advised that parents should “make a note of this agreement by way of email or text message”.

When a child does not get their scheduled time with a parent due to the crisis, there should be still be regular contact, the judge said.

“Using video technologies such as Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp or Face-Time might help, and if that is not possible telephone conversations should be arranged.

“These current restrictions mean that the detail of every access order may not be fully implementable, but as parents you should make every effort to allow your child to continue access in a safe, alternative way.”

‘Practical solutions’

Judge Daly said the best outcome for children is for “parents to contact each other to set out their concerns and suggest ideas for practical solutions that can be put in place. The health concerns of parents, their children and the extended family need to be considered when sorting out arrangements.”

The Legal Aid Board is offering free telephone mediation and conflict coaching to help parents agree revised visitation terms.

Judge Daly said applications for breach of access of maintenance will not be treated as urgent during the crisis unless a good case can be made by one of the parties that they must be heard immediately.

Family law barristers who spoke to The Irish Times expressed concern that once the health crisis abates the courts will have to deal with hundreds of allegations of breached visitation or maintenance orders.

“In many cases those cases are likely to be thrown out because of the current crisis,” one barrister said.

Domestic abuse

Separately gardaí have stressed the coronavirus crisis will not affect its ability to respond to domestic violence calls. “Covid-19 has not diluted An Garda Síochána’s response to domestic abuse,” Det Sgt Laura Sweeny of the domestic abuse intervention and policy unit said.

“It is and will remain a priority for us. Our role is to keep people safe. If you are in danger ring 999 or 112. If you worried about someone ring your local station. No one needs to suffer alone.”