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Divorce and family law explained 

Treating grandparents as second class citizens?

There is a lot in the press lately about the lack of rights that grandparents have when they suddenly find themselves cut off from their grandchildren when their own children’s relationships break down.

The shadow minister for communities and local government, Stewart Jackson, challenged the Prime Minister on 20 May 2009 to “make good the pledge made to me in January 2006 that grandparents should be treated with fairness and equity in the legal system”. The television and radio presenter Gloria Hunniford, a well known champion of grandparent’s rights, also supports the campaign and wants the barriers which prevent grandparents from having contact with their grandchildren removed.

The main area for concern is the current requirement that grandparents (unlike parents) must obtain permission from the courts prior to making an application for contact. This requirement is particularly hard to accept when one learns that step parents who have lived as part of the family for at least three years, have the automatic right to apply for contact without having to apply for permission.

But let’s look at this a little more closely.

Recent case law makes it very clear that the courts accept that grandparents play an important part in children’s lives and their influence is likely to be beneficial. They reach their decisions by applying the law laid down in the Children Act 1989 which focuses on how the welfare of the children can best be safeguarded/promoted rather than the rights of adults whether parents, grandparents or indeed any other person who may wish to make an application.

Is it difficult to make the application?

Not really. It is true that grandparents face an additional hurdle before they reach the same platform as a parent from which to pursue an application but the concern is that the media attention on this matter, whilst to be welcomed, may actually be discouraging grandparents from pursuing such applications. The campaign for greater rights is to be applauded for highlighting an important issue but an unintentional negative effect is the implication that getting the court’s permission is a difficult, expensive and emotionally draining hurdle to be overcome and that this in turn discourages grandparents from pursuing such applications as they feel they have little chance of success.

I’m not sure that is correct. To obtain permission from the court is not a significant hurdle for genuine applicants and the criteria necessary to persuade the court to grant that permission is not demanding.. A grandparent need only show that they have a meaningful and important connection with a child and, if there has been regular involvement in a child’s life, that is usually relatively easy to demonstrate.

Does the additional application will make it more expensive?

The work involved in these initial applications is rarely wasted. By considering the issues, drawing up statements and making contact with the parents or their lawyers you are merely setting out many of the arguments that will be developed in the substantive application which clearly makes less work necessary at that stage. Indeed the application may well have the effect of concentrating the parents’ mind and opening the way forward for dialogue to resolve the issue without the need for further litigation.

Four out of ten grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren upon the breakdown of the parent’s relationship. Whether the law will change and the additional stage for grandparents will be removed remains to be seen. The high profile campaigns keeping this issue alive are to be welcomed but in the meantime it is crucial that grandparents are not inadvertently discouraged from taking steps to maintain the loving and nurturing relationship with their grandchildren which provides those children with great benefit that cannot be obtained from their other relationships.

If you need advice in relation to grandparents rights book an appointment with Woolley & Co, solicitors here.

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