How the current pandemic restrictions are leading more couples to the family courts. As the Liverpool City Region enters week five of a national lockdown and approaching it’s first anniversary of the original lockdown, the long lazy summer days have been replaced with the darker days and winter chills and the economic and emotional impact of 2020 lockdowns have been a brutal reality check for many couples. Covid-19 Lockdown regulations proved to be very challenging for many families during the initial 2020 lockdown periods, but for couples who had already separated or were contemplating separation or divorce the latest pandemic restriction have acted like a pressure cooker on many relationships as tensions rise and finances fall, whilst stress and anxiety levels reach an all-time high. The novelty of extended couple and family time has most definitely run its course for many and the harsh realities of the consequences of the pandemic are resonating a lot more this time around. The festive season has always increased pressures on couples and families but decreasing bank balances and rising tensions as well as the pressures of Christmas have certainly had a negative impact on many couples struggling to maintain a domestic status quo. Sara Perischine, Family Law expert at Astraea Legal has given us an insight into what the New Year/New Lockdown legislation has meant for many families and estranged couples. Disagreements with regard to adherence of lockdown rules – Disruption between separated families following disagreements with regard to adherence to the lockdown rules have proved event more problematic during this latest lockdown. Whilst the rules confirm that children of separated parents can spend time in both households, some parents are refusing to allow this if they feel that the other household is either not taking the rules seriously, or is taking the rules seriously but is still inadvertently putting their family at risk, e.g. if one parent is staying at home but the other is a key/front line worker this can cause tension between those co-parenting. We have also noted an increase in tensions where one parent has moved on with another partner but is not cohabiting with them – other parents suggests that they are breaking the rules by continuing to see them – this results in that parent moving the new partner in which in turn causes even further tension between the separated parents! Catch 22! Sara advises – Separated parents should take a sensible approach to disagreements of this nature. They should consider the their own specific circumstances. For example, where one household has a vulnerable person living there, it may not be wise for children to move between houses. However, parent must not use lockdown as an excuse to withhold contact without good reason as this causes unnecessary hostility and will inevitably have an impact on the welfare of any child involved. If a parent has serious and warranted concerns for withholding contact, they may unilaterally vary a court Order. However, if that decision is challenged, a court will want to see that the parent acted reasonably in light of their individual situation. They should also consider making up for lost time with the other parent. Financial pressures – Financial pressures following redundancies, furlough, less business for the self-employed etc., is putting pressure on couples and children alike leading to more separations and applications for divorce. Where families are separated, we are seeing increased enquires concerning child maintenance orders as some parents are no longer in a position to adhere to them as a result of a drop in their income and in some cases unemployment. Those who were furloughed in summer may now have been made redundant or face further job uncertainty adding increased tension to an already fractured relationship. Sara advises – Financial issues create can create a “pressure cooker” environment at the best times, let alone during a pandemic. Whilst one parent is feeling the impact of reduced pay or job losses, not paying maintenance or assisting financially with the upbringing of the child will inevitably impact on the other parent who may be experiencing similar difficulties. Separated parents should work together to try to find a middle ground where possible, perhaps agreeing a temporary reduction in maintenance until their financial position improves, or deferred payments. Increase in Domestic Violence – Sadly, as has been widely reported, the lockdowns have been responsible for an Increase in domestic violence and whilst this was noted throughout the first lockdown, there is a fear that this lockdown will see cases increase further. Whilst we live in hope that this is the last lockdown, some are finding it hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Those who may have had been furloughed in the summer months enjoying the benefits that the summer months bring, may now face further uncertainty through the bleak, dark, cold winter when it is harder to enjoy recreational time. This inevitably leads to more pressure and hostility which sadly results in a higher risk of domestic incidents. Sara advises – The UN has described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19. Anyone who is a victim of domestic violence is still able to seek help throughout the lockdown. The police are at hand to assist and refuges and helplines remain operational. Most solicitors also remain operational and can assist with an immediate injunction. For those suffering financially, legal aid is still available in some circumstances where domestic violence is an issue. The government website also offers further advice. There is a ‘codeword scheme’ available for those experiencing abuse. You can attend a participating pharmacy (those with and ‘Ask for Ani logo on display) and ask for an ‘ANI’ which stands for Action Needed immediately and is pronounced like the name Annie. They can offer a private space, provide a telephone and talk you through what support you might need from police or other domestic abuse services. Divorce and Separations – Separations and divorces are definitely on the rise yet again with couped up families struggling to balance mental health and anxiety issues and financial pressures. Latterly the pressures of home schooling and trying to juggle increased parenting requirements along with family and domestic responsibilities is quite literally forcing many to breaking point. Whilst working from home was a novelty for many during the lockdowns of 2020, many people have found that they need the structure and escapism of a working life and are struggling to work from home. The change in the seasons and the fact that many children are missing school and friends appears to be at the root of challenging behaviour which is invariably putting enormous pressure on parents, many of whom are quite literally at the end of their lockdown tether. Sara advises – This lockdown has proven to be more difficult for many families. The pressures of juggling all of the above and not really knowing when it will end means that we are seeing more couples seeing no way out and turning on each other. Divorces have been on the rise for some time and the family courts are feeling the pressure of disputes involving children, finances and domestic violence issues. The bleak reality that there is no clear end date to the current situation is exacerbating domestic situations and many did not expect the situation to run for so long and are at the end of their tether. Sara Perischine says “Sometimes early intervention can save a situation and get a couple back on the right track, but if a relationship has irretrievably broken down it is my job to ensure that we come to an acceptable resolution for our clients by removing the emotion and dealing with the facts of the situation. Contacting a family lawyer is not always the end of the road for couples, sometimes it is the start of a new beginning”.