Coronavirus has disrupted all of our lives. In addition to all the burdens placed on the general population, separated parents are placed in a particularly challenging position because their response is tied to an individual with whom they might not see eye-to-eye even in the best of times. Even generally cooperative coparents are struggling with the lack of clear direction on how to handle this situation.
Per the March 25, 2020 Public Health Order, Albertans are required to self-isolate in certain circumstances. (See https://www.alberta.ca/self-isolation.aspx). But there are a myriad of recommended measures to help slow the spread of this illness, including practicing social distancing and limiting exposure to other people.
Many parents are asking how this works when their children live in more than one home. The frequently asked questions include:
- What do you do if your partner is putting your children at risk of contracting COVID-19?
- What do you do if your partner has unilaterally denied your parenting time?
- How do you manage your coparenting responsibilities now that everything else in your life has been disrupted?
- What recourse do you have with the courts closed to non-emergency applications?
The Alberta courts have not given clear resolution on this issue, but we can take some guidance from a recent case from the Ontario Superior Court: Ribeiro v Wright, 2020 ONSC 1829. In that case the triage judge refused to authorize an urgent hearing to restrict the father’s parenting time. The application appears to have been based entirely on a general concern over Covid-19 and a general distrust of the father’s ability or willingness to practice social distancing. This alone was insufficient to restrict the father’s parenting time. The entire case is worth reading for anybody dealing with this kind of dispute, but the tension is effectively summarized by the following passage:
7 On the one hand, in this case there is an existing parenting order. There is a presumption that all orders should be respected and complied with. More to the point, there is a presumption that the existing order reflects a determination that meaningful personal contact with both parents is in the best interests of the child.
8 On the other hand, the well-publicized directives from government and public health officials make it clear that we are in extraordinary times; and that our daily routines and activities will for the most part have to be suspended, in favour of a strict policy of social distancing and limiting community interactions as much as possible.
9 Parents are understandably confused and worried about what to do. Similarly, this is uncharted territory for our court system. We all have to work together to show flexibility, creativity and common sense – to promote both the physical and emotional well-being of children.
Some governments, including the Ontario government, have given direction to coparents regarding these questions. Because we have an independent judiciary these directions are only advisory, but they offer a reasonable approach that is similar to what I would expect the Alberta courts to take.
This pandemic will be with us for long enough that parents must find a new normal for how they will coparent during the crisis. If you and your partner cannot figure out how to do that you should consider talking to a lawyer. We can advise you on how a judge would consider your situation, point you to dispute resolution methods that have already proven effective at resolving these kinds of disputes and, if necessary, resolve the matter through court application.