Family separations can be a testing time for all concerned, especially for any children involved. It is not uncommon for an outpouring of support to be offered to the divorcing parties and their children, however, little thought is often given to the affected grandparents. Family break-ups bring about very difficult circumstances and grandparents’ rights and needs are often forgotten and left to fall through the cracks.
Despite the fact that a grandparent may have a strong emotional bond with their grandchild, the sad reality is that there is no legal right that gives them automatic access to each other. On the other hand, while no automatic rights exist, the courts do tend to acknowledge these relationships and value the important roles grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren. Rarely will a court completely refuse access between the two, this would generally only happen if there is evidence of a risk of harm to the child(ren).
Grandparents’ rights – Early Stages of relationship breakdown
In the early stages following a family separation, it is important to try and maintain the relationship and communication lines between the parents and grandparents as far as possible. Talking and working things through without needing to involve solicitors is always the most desirable option. However, it is clear that this route is not available to everyone as emotions are often very raw at times of divorce and tempers can flare very easily. If your situation resembles this scenario, the next thing to consider is the possibility of entering into mediation. A mediator would work with both sides as an independent party to try and establish grandparents’ rights and reach an agreement about contact with the children – not only as between parents, but to form a bridge between grandparents and grandchildren to ensure contact following the divorce. If communication has irretrievably broken down, then it is unlikely that mediation will be appropriate. Working towards a child arrangements order through the courts may be the only way forward at this stage.
As a grandparent, you are not entitled to make an application for a child arrangements order for contact out of the blue. This right is reserved for people with parental responsibility such as parents, step-parents or guardians. A grandparent must approach the court for permission to apply for an order first – known as ‘applying for leave’. The court will consider the following when grandparents are applying for leave:
- The connection between the grandparent and the grandchild/grandchildren.
- The nature of the contact application.
- Whether the child’s well-being will be harmed in any way by the application.
If you are successful in this process, you can then go on to apply for a child arrangements order to make provision for your grandchild(ren) to have contact with you or spend time with you This order will state who can see the children and for how long. During this process a CAFCASS Welfare Officer (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) will speak to everyone involved and prepare a welfare report which looks at all aspects of the situation. If the report from the CAFCASS officer is strongly in favour of a course of action, it often helps persuade the parents to reach agreement on contact. If those involved still cannot agree, it is as this point that a full hearing in court will be necessary.
During a full hearing, both sides will be given the opportunity to put their arguments across and the Welfare Officer’s report will be taken into account. The interests of the child will be the most important factor at all times. As a grandparent, to be successful in obtaining a court order you will have to show that you play a vital role in your grandchildren’s lives – and that there will be negative consequences for the children should this relationship not continue.
As circumstances are extremely different from case to case, it is important that each scenario is taken into consideration individually. This allows the court to put the child’s needs, safety and well-being first and above the parents’ and grandparents’ needs at all times.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are not being allowed contact with your grandchildren, professional legal advice can be very helpful. A specialist family lawyer can help you put your arguments for contact across in the best possible way, and will make sure that you don’t miss things out. The courts will often be in favour of grandparental involvement, unless the circumstances are extreme – and where it would not be in the child’s best interests.
Court Order being ignored?
The law tries to make it very difficult for court orders to be ignored by those who do not want to follow them. In this case it is often a parent who does not wish the grandparents to be involved in the lives of the children, and will try to make access difficult, even if there is a court order in place. If this is the case and you, as a grandparent, are still struggling to maintain a relationship with your grandchildren it may be necessary to contact the court. The court can then use its powers to enforce the terms of the contact order. Again, good legal advice will ensure the smoothest possible road to the best possible outcomes.
If you are a Grandparent in need of legal advice regarding access to your grandchildren, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We specialise in Family Law and will be more than happy to help advise and guide you through the legal processes available.