Planning for Christmas can be challenging regardless of the shape of your family. Add in a global pandemic with ever changing rules and restrictions and the maze of logistical challenges, it becomes even more tricky to navigate. Christmas 2020 will doubtless look very different for many families with COVID19 disrupting traditions, routines, and well-established contact arrangements all over the country.
Families who live far apart, have loved ones living in multiple different households, are required to shield or isolate due to be categorised as high risk, or in which children move between the homes of their separated parents will find themselves having to come up with new and inventive ways to share the festive period together. For separated parents, this year presents new considerations over and above the usual discussions over how the festive period is best shared.
A blended Christmas
For separated parents sharing the care of the children of the family, arrangements which may have worked seamlessly for years on end may now have to change and for those who have separated in this year, Christmas will look very different because of both life changes and the pandemic.
As a family lawyer and proud member of a family so blended it resembles my morning smoothies, my stock advice in respect of Christmas has always been that it is never too early to start making plans. The sooner everyone knows what is happening – most importantly the children – the better for everyone involved. Even better if an arrangement is agreed that repeats itself every year, whether on a rotating basis or not, as this provides children with much needed certainty as to who is going where and when and can reduce conflict. This leaves everyone free to plan and enjoy and get excited for the festive period.
That said, this year has made planning in advance incredibly difficult and the government has only just announced the three-household rule between 23 and 27 December which is bound to create further complexities for separated parents who may have agreed dates but may now need to rethink to accommodate the children spending time with their wider family on both sides. What this year has taught us is that even this proposed arrangement is subject to change and there are added layers of complication caused by the tier system which came into play on 2 December. This, coupled with everyone’s differing view and interpretation of the rules, presents a potential challenge for separated parents going into the Christmas period.
The government guidance in respect of children of separated families remains the same. Children may move between their respective parents households. However, as with most of the restrictions put in place over 2020, the wider rules are open to interpretation and the onus is on parents to seek to agree a joint approach for the benefit of the children.
If arrangements have not already been agreed now is the time to firm up ideas and plans and ensure that everyone is on the same page in terms of Christmas plans. If it is not possible to agree a plan, there are still steps you can take and I have set these out below.
View from inside the snow globe – the eyes of the children
As separated parents, it is important to remember that Christmas across two households can be a major positive in the eyes of children. Two sets of presents, two Christmas dinners, two festive walks in the park, two (virtual) pantomimes, two trips to the Christmas market – what’s not to love – and whilst this year may be more limited in what can be done the joy of two homes celebrating will not be lost. It is eminently possible to make a blended family Christmas something that is full of joy and excitement for children and which ensures that they do not miss out on enjoying the festive period with those they love most but it does require flexibility on both parents parts and a want to have a cooperative parenting arrangement that allows that flex to make arrangements work for both sides of the family.
Making a list, checking it twice
It all sounds so easy on paper – but how to achieve the ‘perfect’ blended Christmas?
- Remember first and foremost to see everything through the eyes of the children – as parents this is no doubt challenging but at Christmas more than ever it is important to prioritise how the children feel and what is likely to work best for them. There is nothing that ruins the run up to Christmas more than a knot in the bottom of your stomach forming at the thought of how you will make sure both of your parents are happy and get to spend time with you over Christmas. This should not be the responsibility of any child and there is a huge benefit to establishing routines early so that as the children get older and have more decision making power they can always revert to the safety of ‘this is what we do every year’.
- Decide on a structure that works logistically – geographical locations will impact on whether Christmas Day itself can be shared with children travelling between parents halfway through the day or whether it is better to avoid lengthy car journeys on Christmas Day and have handovers on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day or the days either side. This is of course impacted by the window of opportunity for mixing with other households this year and a sharing of that week, rather than specific festive days is likely to take priority.
- Consider the wider family and their usual arrangements – Christmas is a time when extended families get together and children get to spend time with cousins/aunts/uncles/grandparents. This year more than ever there is a short 5-day window for children to spend time with wider family who they may not have seen all year (within the boundaries of the Covid rules). Whilst spending time with parents should of course have priority, the importance of the wider family should not be minimised and where possible a structure put in place that avoids the children missing out too much on wider family get togethers.
- Factor in chill time – planning arrangements which involve the children moving too frequently between homes can leave them exhausted and frustrated which will impact everyone. This year has been a challenge for children as much as adults, and factoring in a few days at home for them to enjoy their presents and decompress is important.
There is much to consider when it comes to Christmas and this is not easy when co-parenting relationships are strained and parents have differing views about what would work best and what the children would most enjoy. In those circumstances third party intervention can be necessary and it is important to act quickly on this to avoid last minute rushes and children feeling uncertain about where they will be waking up on Christmas morning.
Help is at hand
If you are experiencing difficulties reaching agreement in relation to Christmas arrangements it is not too late to take action and seek to resolve matters through a dispute resolution process. Whilst the court also remains available as a last resort, the challenges of 2020 have left an already under resourced and oversubscribed system gasping for air and unable to react dynamically to the needs of families. The courts are by necessity having to prioritise public law work in relation to children and as a result are becoming an increasingly blunt instrument when it comes to resolving private disputes between parents.
So, what are the options?
- Mediation – there are now a number of options in terms of mediation and consideration should be given to how this option might work best for you. At its heart mediation is the process of sitting together with an independent, professionally trained third party who is there to facilitate the conversation and help parents work towards an agreement. Whilst most mediators are also legally trained, they are not there to provide legal advice but to manage the interaction between the parties and provide an external view to assist in moving past disagreements and landing on a compromise. Where emotions are running high or there are additional issues preventing parents from agreeing arrangements consideration may be given to therapeutic mediation – where the mediator is also a qualified counsellor or psychiatrist – or hybrid mediation – where the meeting is with both a mediator and a qualified counsellor. These forums are often hugely helpful where there are still emotional scars from previous actions and parents are struggling to move forward with the children front and centre or to reconcile very different practical or emotional viewpoints. Where the children are older many mediators also now offer child inclusive mediation allowing the children to have their say. This has pros and cons in the context of Christmas – where parents simply cannot agree what they consider would be best for the children it may assist to hear their voices but equally putting the pressure of this decision on the children themselves can be harmful and leave them feeling torn and divided in their loyalties.
- Collaborative law – this process is effectively a step up from mediation in that both parents instruct a collaboratively trained solicitor and discussions all take place during meetings with both parents and their legal representatives present. This has the advantage of legal advice being offered but in the context of Christmas arrangements only, which are largely practical rather than legal, may not be as helpful as mediation.
- Arbitration – this is essentially a private form of court proceedings and can be an effective method of alternative dispute resolution if parties are unable to come to an agreement between themselves, within mediation or otherwise. Through this method, the parties agree to appoint an arbitrator who can make a determination about specific issues in dispute, including Christmas. The decision which the arbitrator reaches is binding and final. There are several advantages to arbitration over the court process, most importantly the speed in which the arbitration process can be got underway and concluded.
- Parenting coordination – where there is an existing court order in place setting out child arrangements but it has not been possible to agree the finer details, parents may now agree to appoint a Parenting Coordinator. Both parents are required to sign an agreement with the parenting coordinator which gives that person decision making power in relation to the logistical issues arising out of a court order. This does not change the fabric of the court order but could include matters such as the timing or location of handovers, logistics for sharing or giving presents, who is going to keep which presents at which house. An agreement with a parenting coordinator usually last for 12 – 18 months with the intention being that this then covers one year’s worth of key events and gives parents a framework moving forwards.
- Court applications – where there is no existing court order in place it is open to either parent to make an application to the court under the Children Act 1989. If asking the court to deal solely with the matter of Christmas this could be an application for a specific issue order. These applications are run with the same structure as an application for a child arrangements order, with CAFCASS making initial enquiries and summarising how they consider the case should be dealt with in a safeguarding letter before the first hearing. Whilst it is possible to make urgent applications in advance of the Christmas period, the availability of this option wanes as we get closer and the risk of this approach is that a decision is then made by a judge with very limited time, who has not had an opportunity to consider the nuances of the issues in question and who applies their own (often times rather traditional) theory as to how Christmas is best shared. Judges often have a very particular view on what structure should be adopted and if this is not in line with either parent’s proposals but there is limited time to consider the matter it could leave everyone disappointed.
The benefits of mediation, arbitration and collaborative law are that bespoke timetables can be agreed to help separated parents navigate any issues that may arise or last-minute changes to long established plans. This helps the family to reach an early resolution by agreement and to allow the focus in the run up to Christmas to be on enjoying quality time with the children. ‘Tis the season to be jolly after all so if you are at an impasse, think creatively, maintain a child focused approach and use the dispute resolution processes available to support you and help any impasse be resolved.
Polly Dallyn is an Associate Solicitor based in our Horsham office. Contact us for a confidential discussion about your personal circumstances.