Resolving family disputes through mediation, arbitration and private FDRs during the coronavirus crisis
As a divorced mother of ten year old twins and the head of family and divorce at Kingsley Napley, a 20 + strong team in Central London, I can honestly say that the first week of lockdown was the hardest experience since those dark days eight years ago when I separated from my children’s father. As someone who is resilient, independent and generally good at juggling, until the lockdown I’ve rarely felt like a “proper” single parent. While my twins’ father lives in York, I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent child care over the years. My current au pair understandably flew home to Dublin just before lockdown and, like millions around the country, I am trying to ‘home school’ while managing a full time job. The key to managing being a working parent, for me at least, has been to compartmentalise the different parts of my life but that is just not possible in these unprecedented times.
The first couple of days were a baptism of fire. My idealised vision of the three of us sitting down at the kitchen table working together harmoniously went out of the window within half an hour. First issue was IT problems; not mine (our firm’s IT systems have fortunately held out), but two different school systems crashing and my old home laptop (which my son was borrowing) had unhelpfully overnight developed ‘mouse drifting’. But with IT support, I discovered it can be improved by lots of banging on the inbuilt mouse, so I had two willing volunteers to help. Second was a ‘quick trip’ to the local shop for a pint of milk which required three trips to supermarkets, only to discover when I got home that I’d lost my work mobile phone. After plenty of shouting and tears (the children have seen me cry more in the last two weeks than they remember) and hammering at the doors of the petrol station’s M&S (which was closed for stock taking), eventually the said phone was found, thereby avoiding a complete breakdown on day two of lockdown.
The crisis and how we have dealt with it so far has taught me a lot of things about the children and myself, in particular - while I have never thought of myself as a control freak, it is the lack of control which has caused the biggest stress for me. I love my job as a family lawyer, including the client contact, managing a superb team but also having the independence to go into the office and focus on something else than being a parent, knowing the children are being well cared for by someone else. Unlike my children, my colleagues listen and respond to what I say (or at least they do an excellent job of pretending to!).
But trying to mix client calls, urgent hearings, team meetings by Skype, and crisis meetings with management - all of which are vital in the current time - with looking after two reluctant home schoolers on my own is quite simply impossible. None of us know when the schools will reopen but September seems likely. While others may have children who happily switch on their computers and work away quietly, my two need regular bribing of screen time, snacks, breaks, hot chocolate, zoom chats with friends etc. to focus on school work. And the problem is, when stuck on a long work related call or Skype meeting with a headset (thank god for the mute button), the bribing and certainly the boundaries go out of the window and suddenly they are on YouTube, playing Battlelands Royale or they are ferreting around in the food cupboard. As Dr Emily W King, a psychologist, recently commented “What we are being asked to do is not humanely possible… Working, parenting and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time”.
So after three days, I quickly realised that, if I was going to manage this seemingly endless period, and our mental health was not to suffer permanently by constant shouting, I would need to give way on one of my three jobs, and home teaching (probably the least important at the current time and certainly my worst) has gone by the way side. So I have become much more hands off, trusting (hoping) their teachers check in on them and I have convinced myself that, at this stage with it being their last year of primary school, three to four months of very little studying will not affect them adversely.
As to my other two roles, work and parenting (which of course includes cooking, cleaning, shopping and looking after pets etc.), I realised that the only way to attempt to do even half a good job of either of these whilst doing a tiny bit of ‘school supervision’ is to do what some of my married parent colleagues are doing, i.e. ‘split shifts’. Luckily, I can delegate some work to colleagues, which is sadly not possible with the children but they have rapidly learnt to make their own lunch, stack the dishwater and embarrassing to admit and to the shock of my daughter and me that he didn’t know before, my 10 year old son now knows how to ‘work’ the kettle! And as to work, while not ideal, I have endeavoured to do client or third party calls early in the morning or from 12pm so I can focus on the children and household tasks in the morning. And if the children have at least managed two hours of school work in the morning (and walked Arthur, our recently acquired re-homed mad cocker spaniel), I can then focus on work for the afternoon and again in the evening.
I’ve also learnt to be selective about which parents I talk to (i.e. avoiding those who seem to have it sorted, which can be a little difficult if they happen to be your friends or clients!) as things like ‘my child didn’t have time to get on the zoom call you organised as they have being doing their school work all day’ can make you feel the most inadequate parent ever. I’m also careful about what I read when I have the energy and time to do so - the internet is full of websites offering parental guidance, podcasts and ideas for parents getting through the crisis, but many of the ideas involve input from parents which screens do not!
I admitted defeat to home schooling after three days but then to alleviate my guilt, I stayed up to midnight writing a list from the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV hubs of all the educational related programmes and nature programmes that would hopefully get them through the afternoons. What has kept me going have been the funny clips or photos that people send you on WhatsApp, be it the Israeli working mum’s rant about home schooling/working (watch it, it’s hilarious), the swearing Scottish dog, or the clip of the lady pouring wine over her breakfast cereal .
And as I often say to myself at difficult times, it is not about being a good parent but being a good enough parent (to which I’ve added the mantra ‘in the current circumstances’), which involves making sure we all put away phones and screens of any type during meal times, play games or football with the kids in the evening (which we embarrassingly have done very little of in the past), take out energetic Arthur together for our daily exercise, and even manage to help the children with the 5,000 piece jigsaw of a Marmite jar that’s been in the cupboard for many months.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I had big plans for volunteering during the crisis. It started off well just before the lock down, where I helped transform our local rugby club shop, which I help run on a Sunday, into a food bank, and I delivered leaflets to those in the neighbourhood as many have done round the country. We live in an amazing community where AFC Wimbledon has joined forces with Old Ruts rugby club and Merton Mutual Aid in collecting and getting food to the food banks, the self-isolated and key workers. But being a working parent on my own with two ten years olds frustratingly means I cannot help for the three hour shifts at the shops or the food banks but instead I’ve been helping in the limited way I can, including making phone calls to let people know about an impending food delivery and getting shopping for some elderly neighbours. But again I’ve had to accept that my priority is to the children and the team who I manage.
I am very fortunate that I am part of an amazing and loyal team in a great firm, who have really come together at this time – it’s easy to take for granted the camaraderie of working with a lovely team and we have genuinely missed each other over the last few weeks. But, with regular Skype and Zoom calls where people are encouraged to be open about the personal challenges they are facing, and their mental and physical health (we have had five who have suffered from the virus) and daily communications and support from the firm’s management team, this has all helped. In one Skype call we were taken a back when one Senior Associate said every day she thinks of five positive things she has done (I was struggling to get to two at this point), but she immediately said one was having a shower and the other her glass of wine. I hope I keep the team amused with my trials and tribulations of life with two animals and two children, some of which are too appalling to include here as they don’t portray my parenting in the best light. Still, amazingly, despite the arguments both of my children have said they much prefer me being around, especially during this last week when I’ve been ’on holiday’ and both seem relaxed about the lockdown.
As a divorced parent, whose former partner has always lived 200 miles away but with whom I have enjoyed a good relationship, I feel fortunate that I am not struggling with the kind of parenting issues that have arisen out of the current crisis. While many challenges have existed for other parents prior to the lockdown, some issues have now become acute, with the lockdown frequently being used by one of the parents to stop contact, be it because one parent is suspected of flouting the government rules for leaving the home, or one parent being a key worker. While a crisis can bring out the best in people, something I’ve certainly seen in my local community, family lawyers are currently also seeing behaviour which clients might not normally undertake, for example a client’s spouse moving her new partner and their children into the family home within two hours of the lockdown, with the result that one of her own children moved out.
The speedy and clear guidance of the Family Court has been impressive, including the President’s practice direction dated 24 March, although the points in relation to contact with the non-resident parent is being used by either parent to support their position. It is clear that people are desperate for information and advice, which is difficult in the current climate and particularly with so many not eligible for legal aid. One of my colleagues wrote a blog on co-parenting during the coronavirus crisis and it is clear that this is one of immediate issues family law clients are faced with as the blog has seen an unprecedented number of views nearly 15k and a high number of resulting enquiries.
The judiciary has also been proactive in terms of remote proceedings with the family profession having had to quickly come to grips with remote proceedings. With financial hearings effectively postponed (see Mostyn J’s practice direction dated 19 March), the hearings that we have had have either been children hearings or private hearings, including FDRs or arbitration. Like many in the family law profession, the crisis has given arbitration the encouragement it needed, and while often it has suited one rather than the other partner to choose arbitration to speed things up, it is anticipated that a client’s refusal to arbitrate or at least find another form of dispute resolution such as mediation in the current climate may well be something a judge criticises them for in the future.
So far, our experience of remote hearings has generally been positive, with some clients finding remote mediation easier (not having to sit face to face) and others finding the options available on some of the online platforms better, including the ability to have ‘corridors’ for the barristers to meet or ‘breakout’ rooms (which inadvertently but maybe appropriately one of my colleagues called break down rooms in one hearing!). And at least lawyers and clients can wear their pyjama bottoms, have their pets near them or failing that, have a cheeky drink to get through the day (a remote hearing is in fact more tiring than a face to face hearing). Everyone has had to get to grips quickly with the different on line platforms, with the main London family chambers leading the way – a sign of the times being a disagreement between two sets about which platform to use!
On a more serious and worrying note, is the awareness amongst family lawyers and now the public generally that domestic abuse has increased substantially as a result of the lock down. With schools no longer being an important safe haven, so many children round the country will be witnessing domestic abuse, the long term effects of which cannot be underestimated - see my colleagues’ recent blog about self-isolation and what to do when the danger is at home. I take my hats off to those public family lawyers and social workers who are in the thick of it, particularly those who are juggling the stresses of home life as even for them, while as key workers the schools are open, child care, informal or formal, is virtually non-existent during lockdown.
This brings me to my final reflections after having had a few vital days off from home working and home schooling. In short, I recognise just how fortunate I and my children are. Constantly, I’m relieved that we are physically healthy – a particular worry for single parents is that they remain well and I am acutely aware of that with a brother who’s just returned home from a week’s stay in hospital due to the virus and a close friend battling blood cancer and the virus. I’m also relieved that, despite everyone thinking I was mad to get a dog in January from the Dogs Trust, it has transpired into the best decision as he helps us with our mental health and daily exercise. Having talked with other single parent lawyers with younger children, I am also grateful that my children are no longer toddlers, at least at the age of ten, I can leave them on their own to pop out to a shop and I can manage to do a good level of work, even if it means they are having far too much screen time.
Although there is currently not clear end in sight to these unprecedented and difficult times and many will be experiencing far greater challenges that I am, I am hopeful we will get through this stronger, more aware, more agile (as individuals and firms) and kinder to ourselves and others. I also hope that the appreciation shown for key workers will extend far beyond this crisis.
This blog was first published by Women in Family Law on 10 April 2020 as part of their series titled "How is COVID-19 affecting women in family law?"
You may be interested in reading our other blogs about some of the challenges families and separating couples are experiencing in the face of the current crisis:
See also our wider range of coronavirus blogs for these and other topics.
If you have any questions about alternative dispute resolution options during this time, please contact a member of our team of family and divorce lawyers or click here to get started online and find out where you stand.
Charlotte Bradley is head of the family and divorce team at Kingsley Napley, where she has been a partner since 2001. Charlotte specialises in all aspects of family law, particularly international issues, both in relation to finance and children. She has a reputation for cross border jurisdiction issues, particularly European and Relocation cases, and for acting for unmarried parents in Schedule 1 (financial provision) cases.
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