Concerns have been raised about fluctuating Covid lockdown rules causing more harm on children who are already stressed and confused from living under court-imposed parenting orders.
They come as family law practitioners report a rise in clients calling for help about how health directions apply to their specific situations and what takes priority when those directions and court orders clash in relationships that are already strained.
One parent has told The Canberra Times that her former partner was using the blurred lines of lockdown as ammunition to restrict child access during an already emotionally charged family situation.
Jacquelyn Curtis, a director of Canberra family-law firm Parker Coles Curtis Lawyers, said there was a ripple effect on households with the latest outbreak leading to more clients asking for help with parenting and custodial-conflict issues.
"It's really natural for parents to want to have their children close to them at times of crisis, but it's also a time when there is extra scope for escalation of conflict between parents who may have already had a strained or hostile co-parenting relationship."
Ms Curtis said the situation was murkier for parents without formal court orders in place.
She and her colleagues have been telling clients to comply with the ACT Health directives and if it clashes with their family's situation, first apply common sense and pragmatism wherever possible.
"It's not as simple as locking the door and staying inside because the family unit is actually spread out across more than one location, so that is a difficult beast to manage," she said.
The family and federal circuit courts in March last year published a statement saying the expectation was for parties to cooperate and ensure that the best interests of children were addressed, which included complying with court orders.
If strict adherence to parenting orders is not possible, "it is imperative that any revised arrangements reflect the spirit of the orders".
The statement also gave parents some general guidance outside of court proceedings.
Since then, the court has run its National COVID-19 List dedicated to dealing with priority family law disputes arising from the pandemic.
Between April and August 2021, 586 matters sought a listing in that list to be dealt within three to seven days, data from the courts show.
A spokesperson said there had "been a gradual increase in the number of applications nationally over recent weeks" with four being made in Canberra since the list began.
A Canberra woman, who is not named due to legal reasons, said court orders allowed her to share custody of her child but her ex-partner has used the Covid restrictions to prevent her from visiting and picking up the child.
"As soon as the lockdown happened, he effectively said I can't see my child anymore," she said.
"He's using the excuse that the ACT government has told us to stay in our suburbs. He's using those blurred lines as a way to not go ahead with court orders.
"Who knows how long the lockdown will go on for, so I might go weeks or months before I get to see my child. It's very difficult."
The woman said she hoped to see more specific advice from the government for families who have contracted or been exposed to Covid and the various scenarios that may arise from them.
"It's already an emotionally charged situation. A lot of stress between the families and with Covid, either party can use it as ammunition. You don't want that," she said.
"Separation is hard for children during normal times, but then to have it exacerbated by things like lockdowns means it's the children who suffer."
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An ACT government spokesperson said if a child were a close contact of a positive case, they needed to remain in quarantine until advised further by ACT Health - even if they received a negative test result.
"Shared parenting arrangements will need to pause until that child is no longer under quarantine requirements," the spokesperson said.
"The child will need to remain in the household of the parent they were staying with when they were directed to quarantine."
On August 24, after The Canberra Times put questions to the government, ACT Health published a statement providing general guidance for people with shared custody.
"If one parent lives in NSW in the approved postcodes, transporting children is considered an essential reason to leave the ACT," the statement reads.
"In cases where single parents live alone with their children, the other parent's household will not count as the one household that they can visit."
Prior to the current advice, the ACT Health website's only relevant guidance under its stay-at-home orders for those subjected to parenting orders included continuing existing arrangements for access to and contact between parents and children.
It also included fulfilling or undertaking any legal obligations (for example, attend court).
However, it had no specific advice about other Covid situations that may arise from families in such situations.
As of 8pm Monday, the ACT has 167 active Covid cases. Three deaths have been recorded since the pandemic began.
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