I have to admit to feeling a certain warmth when I heard the news the other day that grandparents might finally get some rights to see their grandchildren if their own children get a divorce or separation. This is a topic we have touched upon many times before and one where we are often called upon to provide advice.
Grandparents can play a very important role in the life of young children. Increasingly in this day and age, this can be as a carer while parents are at work, but also in terms of the time they can spend with the youngsters and pass on the benefit of their wisdom. Most people would agree that it is enriching to all and a positive thing. However, as things stand at the moment, grandparents do not have any legal right to have access to grandchildren. If the estranged partner of their own child wants to be difficult, there is little that can be done.
So the news was most welcome. Proposals unveiled last week mean that new Parenting Agreements would explicitly set out contact arrangements for grandparents which can then be used as evidence in court if a mother or father ignores it. While not law yet, this is highly promising. The changes are recommended as part of a number of reforms to the family justice regime and already have the backing of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg who is on record as saying it is “crazy” that millions of grandparents lose contact after separation and divorce.
The new agreements will be drawn up with the help of family mediators who, by the looks of it, are going to be pretty overworked in the near future as a number of changes to family law seem to hinge on their input. This is a slight cause for concern but you can understand why this is the route that is being suggested. They play a conciliatory role in reaching agreements and settlements, and if not them, it could be a case of taking up court time that the Family Justice Review is hoping to free up.
There is the slight worry that these agreements will not be completely legally binding. It is recommended they can be used as evidence in a civil court if agreed contact is being denied. In that sense they will be akin to pre-nuptial agreements – not currently binding, but persuasive documents. But even that is a significant improvement on where we have been up to now.