Family law often has international elements such as foreign assets, competing jurisdictions and relocation. With the Easter holidays approaching, children may be intending to travel to spend time with a parent that lives abroad. So how will coronavirus (or COVID-19) impact this and other aspects of family law?
In terms of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, if a parent wishes to travel abroad with a child, they require the other parent’s consent – whether the parents are separated or not. If consent is not forthcoming, the matter can be determined by a court. Consent may reasonably be withheld if a parent intends to travel to a Category 1 country due to the potential risks.
Various travel bans and restrictions have been implemented in an attempt to contain the outbreak. Individuals are not permitted to enter and exit certain countries or travel through various areas. This can have an impact on facilitating contact between children and parents who reside in different countries. A short-term fix is ‘indirect contact’ such as Skype, FaceTime or telephone calls, but it is acknowledged that this does not have the same benefit as ‘direct’ face to face contact.
It is worthwhile having a controlled conversation with your children about coronavirus and what it may mean for them. They will likely be picking up information from news sources, their friends and social media. It is important they have the opportunity to discuss any queries or worries they may have. Talk about things they can control: such as putting tissues in the bin, washing their hands and covering their mouths when coughing. Use simple language and allow them to ask questions. If the virus and the fallout associated with it is going to affect them, such as through foreign travel or contact arrangements, explain this to them.
If family law disputes such as financial claims on divorce are litigated, the parties, and perhaps other family members, would ordinarily be expected to be personally present at court hearings. If coronavirus continues to spread, courts may require to put contingency plans in place such as the use of digital technology. Personal attendance may have to be excused or the case may be postponed to a later date. If it is necessary for individuals to give evidence, this could be by way of affidavits (sworn written statements) or by video link – instead of personal appearance. The Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service have prepared helpful guidance on attendance at court: https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/coming-to-court/attending-a-court/coronavirus
Shareholdings, pensions and other investments are often the most significant assets in the ‘matrimonial pot’ to be divided on divorce. As the stock market continues to react to news of the virus spreading, it is important to obtain as up to date valuations as possible, as prices will likely have fallen over the last few weeks. It is also worthwhile seeking legal advice on the relevance of your date of separation and how the change in value of matrimonial assets between that date and the current date may impact any financial settlement. The approach in Scotland is very different to other jurisdictions so specialist legal advice should be obtained at any early stage in the event of a relationship breakdown.