Family law during COVID-19

Introduction

The COVID-19 emergency has had a big impact on the lives of families across Ireland. Currently Irish people need to stay at home as much as possible to minimise the spread of the virus.

These restrictions have created confusion and distress for many families. Many parents are uncertain about legal issues relating to access and maintenance payments, while some are at risk of domestic abuse.

This document gives practical information and advice on family law issues during the COVID-19 emergency period, including:

  • Access to children
  • Maintenance payments
  • Barring, safety and protection orders
  • Operation of courts during the COVID-19 emergency period
  • Services and supports available to people at risk of domestic abuse

You can also read about:

From 18 May, applications and hearings for breach of maintenance and access orders that have occurred during the COVID-19 emergency period, and hearings for temporary guardianship orders, will be treated as urgent matters by the courts.

Access to children

On 6 April, the Law Society of Ireland published guidance on access issues during the COVID-19 emergency period.

The guidance is clear that current public health restrictions cannot be used as an excuse to ignore a court order and that existing orders should be complied with as much as possible in the circumstances. However, parents should always make decisions in the best interests of the child involved, particularly if the child has a compromised immune system.

The best outcome for children is for parents to contact each other to set out their concerns and suggest ideas for practical solutions that can be put in place.

According to the Law Society guidelines:

  • Court orders in relation to access remain in place and should be complied with as much as possible. Children are allowed to move between parents’ homes for access.
  • Travel between parents’ homes is allowed for access. You should have a copy of the court order with you when travelling for access.
  • If no court order is in place, arrangements made between parents about access should continue unless there are exceptional circumstances. You should make a note of any temporary agreements by text or email.
  • Even if there is a court order in place, parents can come to their own arrangements for additional or alternative remote contact, such as telephone, Skype, Facetime or WhatsApp, to allow children to have contact with the other parent. Parents should make a note of this temporary agreement by text or email.
  • The health concerns of parents, their children and the extended family (especially older people, grandparents and people with an underlying medical condition) need to be considered when sorting out arrangements. If one parent is living with his/her parents every effort should be made to ensure the grandparents are not put at risk.
  • Parents should engage in mediation if they cannot agree access. If mediation is unavailable or unsuccessful, solicitors may be able to help to reach a temporary agreement.

The Family Mediation Service of the Legal Aid Board is offering free telephone mediation and conflict coaching during the COVID-19 emergency period. You can also access a list of family law mediation solicitors.

Placement of children with relatives and temporary guardianship

You may be concerned about who will look after your children if you become sick. This might be of particular concern if you are parenting alone. In many cases, other family members will be able to help. From 12 May 2020, new temporary regulations (pdf) take effect for a period of 3 months to make it easier and quicker for a child to be placed with a relative by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Tusla must be satisfied that the immediate placement of a child in its care with a relative of the child is in the interests of the child.

Alternatively, if there is no obvious stand-in or where there is an important decision to be made in relation to the child, such as consent to medical treatment, it may be reassuring to have a plan in place.

Temporary guardianship can be granted by the District Court to allow another adult, known as the nominated person, to care for your child or children when you are seriously unwell or need be hospitalised. The nominated person must be a suitable person and over 18 years old.

You need to complete a special form to nominate a temporary guardian (pdf), in which you can set out your wishes on any limitations on the temporary guardian. The nominated person must then apply to the court if you cannot carry out your parental role due to serious illness. The scope of temporary guardian’s rights will be set out in the District Court’s Order, which will usually be identical to the wishes you set out in the form. The District Court is currently closed for general case hearings but if your case is urgent it will be heard.

Support organisations for families

One Family, the national support organisation for lone parents, has published a practical guide on managing access during the COVID-19 restrictions.

Treoir, the National Federation of Services for Unmarried Parents and their Children, is also available to provide advice.

Barnardos has launched a dedicated telephone and email service to support families through the pandemic, available on 1800 910123, 10am-2pm, Monday to Friday.

You can read more supports for families during COVID-19.

Maintenance issues

Parents who pay child maintenance should continue making payments as normal during the COVID-19 emergency period.

The Law Society of Ireland has published advice on your options if you have lost your job or had your income reduced and can no longer afford to pay the child maintenance as set out in a maintenance order. Advice has also been issued by the Legal Aid Board.

You are advised to:

  • Tell the person who gets the maintenance that you will not be able to pay the agreed amount of maintenance and explain why. This should be done before the payment is due, if possible.
  • You should also send a letter to their solicitor (if they have one) explaining your position and include any available evidence that shows a change in your financial circumstances.
  • You should consult your solicitor for advice, if possible, about an appropriate payment to make in the changed circumstances. You should tell your ex-partner (or the parent of your child) as soon as possible how much you intend to pay and try to reach an agreement with them.
  • If agreement cannot be reached, you should pay what you are advised or believe is the appropriate amount in the circumstances and apply for an order to vary the maintenance as soon as possible.

The guidance also states that:

  • Applications for breach of maintenance orders or summonses for attendance of maintenance debtors should not be made or issued if there is good reason why the debtor has varied the amount in the order.
  • Applications to vary maintenance should be lodged as soon as possible, for whatever return date is given, so that applications can be made to backdate orders.
  • Where the person receiving the maintenance is in difficulty, their circumstances should also be considered.
  • If there are any issues with making mortgage payments and other joint bills, you should communicate (through your solicitor or directly) with your former partner or parent of your child. Both parties should work together to notify banks or other third parties that there is an issue with payment of bills.

FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) has published advice for people having difficulty paying maintenance during the COVID-19 emergency period. You can call FLAC’s Information line on 1890 350250 or 01 8745690, Monday to Friday 9.30am-1pm and 2-5pm.

One-Parent Family Payment and Jobseeker’s Transition Payment

If you are getting a One-Parent Family Payment or Jobseeker’s Transition Payment and the other parent of your child has reduced or stopped their maintenance payment, you may be entitled to an increase in your payment.

To get an increase, you should contact your local Intreo Centre. You will need to write a letter stating either the reduced amount, or that you are no longer getting a maintenance payment and send it to your local Intreo Centre.

Your One-Parent Family Payment or Jobseeeker's Transition Payment will be increased for up to 12 weeks. After that period, your payment may be reviewed and your means reassessed.

Law courts

Court offices are open for essential business by appointment only. Members of the public and legal practitioners will not be served at a court office without an appointment. To get an appointment, you can contact the relevant office by email.

Plans have been announced to extend use of virtual remote court hearings, and organise more physical hearings in the coming weeks. Circuit and High Court family law issues that have been adjourned since March 2020, will be given a hearing date by the Court Office as soon as possible.

Child care and family law issues may be dealt with remotely where this is possible and appropriate.

District Family Courts are still dealing with urgent cases involving domestic abuse and continue to process:

  • New applications for protection orders
  • New applications for interim barring orders
  • Applications for emergency barring orders
  • Extension of care orders and interim care orders and emergency care orders and exceptional or urgent interim care orders

If your safety order hearing is being adjourned an interim protection order will be extended to the new date.

You can email your court office setting out the reasons why the case should be considered urgent. You should email the person who you are claiming against or their solicitor to let them know you have applied and they must be given a chance to set out their position. You will be notified of the court’s decision by email. You can get contact details for offices on /beta.courts.ie/content/find-us

If you cannot afford to ask the Court for protection from an abusive spouse or partner or another family member, you can apply for legal aid. The Legal Aid Board has an emergency number for domestic abuse applications: 1890 615 200, from Monday to Friday between 10.00am to 12.30pm and from 2.00pm to 4.00pm.

Alternatively you can email your contact details to info@legalaidboard.ie and arrange a call-back, or you can make an application for legal aid online. You can also use the Legal Aid Board’s emergency service if Tusla has informed you that it intends to apply to the court to take your children into care.

Domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is violence or another form of abuse by a person against another person that they are, or were, in an intimate relationship with. The abuse may be physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial. Domestic abuse can affect children and other family members.

If you feel in immediate danger, call 112 or 999 as soon as it is safe to do so. The Gardaí are specially trained to deal with these situations.

COVID-19 travel restrictions do not apply if you require access to essential services or if you are seeking to avoid the risk of harm.

Domestic abuse applications will continue to be given priority in the Court system, so if a protection or interim barring order is needed, you can still come to court.

The Legal Aid Board has published guidance on services in place to deal with domestic abuse during the COVID-19 emergency period.

Many organisations have extended and adapted their services during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased demand for support. You can access a full list of domestic abuse support services.

The ISPCC is running a support line for parents and carers as well as its 24-hour Childline and Teenline listening services for children and young people up to the age of 18:

  • The ISPCC support line can be contacted on 0871497060 between 9am-1pm daily
  • Childline can be contacted by phone on 1800-666666, by text on 50101 and by live chat, and is available 24/7
  • Teenline can be contacted by phone on 1800-833634 and is available 24/7.

If you are concerned about elder abuse, you can call the HSE helpline on 1850 24 1850, Monday to Saturday – 8am to 8pm. If you feel in immediate danger, you should contact the Garda. For further information please consult the HSE’s website on elder abuse or visit Safeguarding Ireland.

Safeguarding Ireland has also published guidance about protecting older people from financial abuse during the emergency period.

Where to apply

The Legal Aid Board

Quay Street
Caherciveen
Kerry
V23 RD36
Ireland

Tel: 066 947 1000
Locall: 1890 615 200

Treoir

28 North Great Georges Street
Dublin 1
Ireland

Tel: +353 (0)1 670 0120

One Family

8 Coke Lane
Dublin 7
Ireland

Tel: +353 (0)1 662 9212
Locall: 1890 662212

Page edited: 26 May 2020