Grandparents and grandchildren can have a very special relationship, one treasured by all. In addition to the fun grandparents can provide, they are often a valuable source of (usually unpaid) childcare. The TUC recently estimated that 7 million grandparents provide regular childcare to their grandchildren. It went on to make a call for them to be given the right to regular unpaid time off work to help with their child care duties. At present working grandparents have no automatic right to time off, and can only request it in emergencies.
Despite the key role that grandparents can play in the lives of extended families, it is a sad truth that when families separate, grandparents can sometimes feel side-lined. They sometimes feel pushed aside in the turmoil of family breakdown, when emotions run high and it might feel all too easy to say “the wrong thing” or to be pushed into taking sides. Later on, where children are sharing their time between two homes and parental time with children can feel limited, it can be difficult to find time for the wider family. Some grandparents find themselves in the horrible situation of being excluded altogether from the lives of their grandchildren.
A recent case before the Court of Appeal highlighted the sad situation which can arise when wider families fall out. The case is called Re H.
The case was brought by a grandmother in an attempt to reinstate contact with her granddaughter, which had ceased following a family argument and an allegation made about the child’s step-father. The court was sympathetic to the grandmother’s position, but the difficulty was that the child was adamant that she did not want to see her grandmother following the family bust-up. So, although the grandmother did not succeed in getting direct (face to face) contact ordered, the court wanted the child’s guardian to “quietly and appropriately inform [the child] that her grandmother still wishes to see her and that if in the future she comes to the view that she wishes to see her grandmother, she should inform CAFCASS or those at her school so that something can be done to effect that.” In effect it wanted the door left open for the child and her grandmother to rebuild their relationship in the future, acknowledging the importance of the grandparental relationship.
So, what help can the law be for grandparents trying to get back in touch with their grandchildren?
We should first mention the alternatives to court. It is usually worth speaking with the parents about the need to preserve the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren for the benefit of the whole family. Our regular readers will know how firmly we believe in mediation, as well as other forms of non-court based dispute resolution, as a way of resolving serious family disagreements. Mediation in particular is an excellent way of working out children’s future arrangements and how best to involve the whole wider family to support the child. The process is not restricted to the separating couple, and if everyone agrees, grandparents can be involved in the discussions: the focus is the effect on the child, and usually all involved are at least united in wanting the best for that child, even if they disagree on how that might look.
Thankfully it is very rare that grandparents feel the need to go to court about their grandchildren, but it is possible for grandparents to apply to have contact with grandchildren, and even for residence orders in extreme cases, for example where social services have severe concerns about the parents.
Grandparents do not have an automatic right to apply to the court, and have the additional hurdle of first applying for the permission of the court to make an application, but for any grandparent honestly concerned for the welfare of grandchildren who feels the arrangements they want are in their grandchildren’s best interests, this is not a high hurdle.
Courts do take grandparents’ positions seriously and there are several reported cases where grandparents have been successful in their bids for contact with their grandchildren, and in some particularly difficult circumstances, to have grandchildren come and live with them. In a recently reported case in Essex, two grandparents were successful in becoming guardians for their granddaughter and having her come to live with them after the local authority had taken steps to remove the child from her mother, and put her into care with a view to her being adopted.
There are several organisations that can help grandparents facing the difficulties of separating families. A useful first port of call is the Grandparents’ Association.
As always, if there is any aspect of family law about which you would like to speak to us, please call us on 01223 443333 to book an appointment.