The breakdown of a marriage or long term partnership can be upsetting for all concerned. But for grandparents it can be even more so if contact with a grandchild is denied.
Visits with grandparents are a precious and integral part of a child’s experience. The loving and nurturing relationship between grandparents and a grandchild often provide a child with intangible benefits that cannot be derived from other relationships.
A grandparent provides many levels of support to a child. Amongst their myriad of roles they can be a watchdog, a stress buster, an arbitrator, a family historian, a supporter and a role model. The removal of grandparents at a time when a child is undergoing the upheaval and distress of family separation is therefore devastating for that child.
Sadly, it is an increasing fact of life that grandchildren who are the product of broken homes are being deprived of contact with their grandparents and lose that very special relationship.
So, what should a grandparent do if they fear they might lose contact
- If possible, approach the child’s mother or father and explain that no matter what the problems are between the parents, you as a grandparent do not intend to take sides but only wish to maintain contact with your grandchild.
- However, it is frequently the case that the relationship between your daughter or son-in- law or even with your own children have broken down to such an extent that this is not practical. In those circumstances a referral to mediation is an option whereby an independent mediator will try and help you reach an agreement with the parents. Both parties must agree to mediation and it may therefore not be suitable.
- If none of the above are practical or possible you may make an application to the court. Unlike parents, a grandparent does not have an automatic right to apply for a contact order and will have to apply for leave to make that application. In order to be successful the grandparent must show that they have a meaningful and important connection with the child.
- Once you have been granted leave then your application for contact will be considered. Frequently this will involve the appointment of a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer to look at any welfare issues that need to be considered and to prepare a report to aid the court in coming to a decision.
- If the report is favourable it is often very strongly persuasive to the parent with care but if they still will not agree then there will be a full hearing with both sides giving evidence and the court making a decision on the basis of what they feel to be in the child’s best interests. You will need to convince the court that your relationship with the grandchild significantly benefits their lives.
What happens if the mother or father does not comply with a court order?
- Once the court has made a decision that contact is in a child’s best interests they will not tolerate any effort to thwart a contact order. The powers available to the court to enforce these orders have recently been increased in such a way that makes it extremely difficult for parents to ignore them. They are therefore a very powerful way to ensure that grandparents can maintain a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with their grandchildren.
What do I do now?
- If possible, attempt to discuss with the parent with care to try and reach an agreement in respect of contact.
- If that is not possible, talk to one of our family law specialists to obtain details advice about the situation. Early advice will allow you to understand your options and to act in an appropriate way so as not to unsettle what could be a very delicate situation.
Involvement by the Local Authority
Whilst the majority of problems that occur relate to the loss of contact by grandparents with their grandchildren when their own children’s relationships break down, there are many other situations in which grandparents can find themselves in need of advice and assistance.
This is particularly the case where the local authority have become involved and where a child may be being accommodated with foster carers or be subject to a care order because of unsatisfactory arrangements at home. In these circumstances grandparents will often wish to maintain contact with their grandchildren and they may even wish to put themselves forward as the prospective main carer. Issues such as obtaining parental responsibility or a residence order in respect of their grandchildren will therefore become relevant.
It may also be relevant to look at the issue of special guardianship orders which provide even greater security to a grandparent and are only slightly less secure than an adoption order which ends the legal relationship between a child and his birth parents.
It is possible for grandparents to become joined as a party to any existing proceedings that have been brought by the Local Authority although this is subject to the provision that grandparents will need to obtain the leave of the court to make such an application. It is not necessary for there to be existing proceedings to make such an application and grandparents may bring these applications for leave in their own right if the circumstances warrant it.
These are difficult issues involving complex law and it is vital that legal advice is sought at an early stage to ensure that the correct approach is made both to the parents and to the Local Authority who may have gained parental responsibility for the children themselves if care proceedings have been issued.
Woolley & Co have specialist family lawyers who can help in matters of this nature and who can guide you through the process to ensure that you maintain that vital link and provide a measure of stability to your grandchildren at a time when they are confused and unhappy about the route their lives are taking. Book a telephone appointment with a family law specialist here.