COVID restrictions have been a frequent source of disputes in family law, says Laura Paris
After the pandemic intensified the anger and a sense of urgency among clients in family law, aggressive negotiations have toned down and parents are working harder to find out-of-court solutions, says Laura Paris, lawyer at Shulman & Partners LLP.
COVID lockdowns and restrictions have been a frequent source of dispute between parents, says Paris. Existing parenting schedules had to be revised and those in the process of being negotiated were complicated. Parents who were the primary caregiver became concerned the other was not complying with COVID protocols – which kept changing. School closures further exasperated the situation. Parents with more flexibility in their work schedule argued they should have more time with the kids and those who had more demanding jobs wanted to ensure they were not losing out. The court was “flooded” with cases of parents ceasing to facilitate access, using COVID measures as a justification, says Paris.
“Now, at this point almost one year later, what we're seeing is that – for the most part – it seems that parents have gotten to a point where they're not fighting over this as much anymore, because they're recognizing that there is no real perfect solution here,” she says. “… In my view anyways, people are less angry right now. We’re not seeing as many emergency situations. At the beginning of this, every matter before the court was proceeding on an urgent basis.”
Parents are realizing that these disputes are expensive and unless there is a legitimate fear for the children’s safety, one parent cannot unilaterally decide to ditch the schedule, says Paris.
But the familial tension created by COVID is not over. A new state of emergency was announced Jan. 12 and in-person classes at schools in Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex will be suspended until Feb. 10, at least.
It is a principle of family law that a child should have the maximum contact with both parents, to the extent that serves the child’s best interests, says Paris. But without much of a hint as to when the COVID restrictions will end, planning with separated or divorced parents in aid of that goal is difficult, she says.
“What we're dealing with this year, the problem is that every week things are changing. So when we're assessing what is in the children's best interests, well, that changes based on what the government is telling us,” she says.
That is especially complicated when the child’s parents happen to be frontline workers. At the beginning of the pandemic, people were afraid of having children stay with a parent in that position, says Paris. Recently, as more is learned about the exposure to which front-line workers are subject, that has dissipated and schedules have been able to be adjusted, she says.
And making any long-term planning is next to impossible, says Paris. While lives change and unexpected events occur, parents typically have a clearly defined idea of what the next five-to-ten years will look like – where they will work, in which jurisdiction they will live, she says.
“Something like a pandemic and government restrictions changing almost on the daily, you can't plan for that,” says Paris.
Once the pandemic ends and Ontario reopens, Paris worries that the circumstances caused by COVID will be a source of conflict between parents in the future. For example, parents may try to maintain parenting schedules that were altered to accommodate the pandemic, but had restricted the other parent’s access to the child.
“I think we may see a backlash from all of this once things start getting back to normal,” she says.