Covid-19 Circuit Breaker: Access to Children and Alternative Arrangements
In light of the implementation of elevated safe distancing measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is much uncertainty regarding how access arrangements are to be carried out by divorced parents during this unprecedented pandemic. Access arrangements that are scheduled to take place at any public areas or neutral third-party institution such as DSSA Centre should also cease as the underlying principle is that everyone should stay at home unless for essential purposes.
COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act and how it affects physical access
Further, Parliament has passed the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill as at 7 April 2020. The Act provides a list of 12 purposes where an individual may leave his or her place of residence. Considering that facilitating access arrangements is not on the list of approved purposes and not permitted under these regulations, it gives that impression that access will have to be temporarily suspended while local agencies and medical institutions work to contain the spread. The new Act also states that individuals must not meet another individual for any social purposes.
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Exploring alternative access arrangements and possible legal repercussions
Nevertheless, in this time of uncertainty and uneasiness (a “mighty storm”) where Singaporeans have to make changes to their daily routines, divorced parents should take this time to work together and make alternative arrangements for the welfare of their children until these “Circuit Breaker” measures are lifted. Though physical contact may be not be possible or should be avoided, it does not mean that interactions between parent and child have to stop. Divorced parents should communicate and express their concerns to one another as they make arrangements to facilitate interaction or make-up access between access parent and child through online platforms such as Skype, WhatsApp video, facetime etc.
Ultimately, divorced parents should as far as possible act in the best interests of the child which means ensuring that the parent and child bond is not lost. From the child’s perspective, it is already confusing enough that schools have been shut and if routine interactions between access parent and child also stop, it may leave the child feeling abandoned in some circumstances. Parents should work together to provide stability for their child during these difficult times.
The parent with care & control should also recognize that the legal right to access is still effective and not unnecessarily and unreasonably deny the other parent any interaction with the child citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to do so. Thus, divorced parents should as far as possible use common sense, their own discretion and stand in solidarity for their children to facilitate access through online platforms.
One should note that if and when these elevated safe distancing measures are lifted and the parent with care & control has unreasonably denied access to the other parents during this period, it may be grounds for legal recourse or a variation of the custodial orders or as a last resort, committal proceedings.
Lastly, the new Act also provides that if an individual is unable to stay at his or her place of residence because there may be a risk of transmission to the other inhabitants (including his or her children), he or she may be directed by an enforcement officer to stay at another designated place. This may be the case where the parent with care & control is served with a Quarantine Order. The question which remains is what happens if he or she is the only caregiver of the child(ren)? This is where temporary arrangements will most likely be made for the child or children reside with the access parent.
During this period of adjustment for all Singaporeans, circumstances may differ for each family and this article provides a general and broad view of how access arrangements are to be facilitated. We will provide further clarifications as and when we receive updates from the Government and the Courts.
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Amendment to the Covid-19 Bill in Singapore
There is an amendment to the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Bill which came into effect today (10 April 2020):
Paragraph 4(3): (3) An individual may leave the individual’s ordinary place of
residence only to the extent necessary for any of the following
(e) to transfer temporary custody or care of a child pursuant to any agreement regarding the access rights of a parent of the child, or in discharge of a legal obligation
What this timely amendment does is that it provides clarification that access orders should continue and that they are not stayed by the circumstances. However, there is still room for debate as to whether this covers supervised access and other more complicated access arrangements.
As a concluding point, we will like to reiterate that one should never forget the overarching theme that the welfare of the child is of paramount importance. A parent should take this in consideration when exercising their right to access their children.