Parents fight in court over whether children should return to school in England

Family lawyer says divorcing couples can disagree during coronavirus pandemic amid conflicting advice

Separating parents are fighting each other through the courts over whether their children should return to school as lockdown is eased, a leading family lawyer has revealed.

The reopening of classrooms in England is developing into a battleground for divorcing couples who disagree over whether their children should be allowed back to school or kept at home for safety reasons, according to Sarah Williams, legal director at the London family law firm Payne Hicks Beach.

Williams is dealing with several cases where divorcing mothers and fathers are taking disagreements over what should happen to their child to the family courts. Her colleagues are dealing with similar disputes.

“They are quite acrimonious,” Williams said. “There’s a time pressure. It’s difficult for parents to know which authorities they should be listening to. People are quoting regulations and government recommendations.

“In one case, the mother is saying her daughters need social interaction after weeks inside the same four walls and that they are at low risk. The father is saying he can work flexibly at home and there’s no need to subject them to any risk by sending them back to school.

“I have never been busier. There’s more to argue about. There are disputes between ex-partners over whether children should wear face masks or carry hand gel.

“It opens up a whole can of worms for parents. It’s not clear what’s right for the child. People feel very strongly about the risks of the virus and Kawasaki syndrome [the rare inflammatory condition that appears to be connected to coronavirus infection].”

Family courts have been dealing with urgent cases only throughout the pandemic crisis, some via remote video hearings. They can be difficult to organise with children present in the home.

Early on in the lockdown, there were fears that court-sanctioned child custody arrangements would be disrupted by restrictions on leaving home.

Williams said there was no consistent gender pattern as to whether it was the mother or father who was more protective or in favour of letting a child mingle with classmates. Some parents had been “terrified” about letting their children out.

Previously disputes between separating couples were usually over which school a child should attend, Williams said.

As debates over the coronavirus crisis have proliferated through thousands of articles about the necessity of lockdown and the severity of the danger to health, parents are being presented with a plethora of rival authorities and divergent views.

“We are getting arguments about which expert is the most appropriate in their circumstances,” Williams said. “They are very genuine. There’s a pressure to make a decision and there are all these conflicting messages. There’s no real time in the court system at the moment [for disputes such as this] and you can’t go to mediation over it [unless both parties agree to that route].”

Some of the disputes have focused on whether it is safe for children to go on the tube when travelling to school and whether schools can guarantee that classrooms are risk-free places for pupils. “The reality is that when you have primary school-age children how will you ensure that social distancing is followed,” Williams said. “It’s difficult for parents to know what’s right.”

• This article was amended on 3 June 2020 to amend a quote from Sarah Williams about the availability of court time, and to clarify her comment that mediation is only an option if both parties agree to that process.


Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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