Grandparent Rights – An Automatic Right?

There are now more grandparents than ever assisting families with childcare arrangements resulting in many grandparents playing a more significant role in the upbringing of their grandchildren. It has been reported by the charity Grandparents Plus that 25% of working mothers would be faced with having to give up work completely and a further 38% would be left with no alternative, but to reduce their working hours if they did not have the support of grandparents.  It is also noted that multi-generational households are increasing with there being a rising feeling on behalf of grandparents that they should have a right to see and spend time with their grandchildren, when in reality the law provides that grandparents do not have an automatic right to a relationship with their grandchildren, despite the fact that they are relied on for help with child care and family finances.

We are often faced with heart-wrenching stories from grandparents who are unable or have been refused contact with their grandchildren following either the death of one parent or a parental relationship breakdown, with many grandparents reporting that they feel “cut off”, “emotionally abused”, “used” and feeling as though they are dealing with a “living bereavement”.  Such factors have led to an increase in grandparents filing applications to the Family Court seeking to spend time or have indirect contact (such as telephone and/or facetime/skype) with their grandchildren. Research has suggested that an average of seven applications per day are filed by grandparents at the Family Court.

However, the legal route may not always be the most effective or easiest method to reach an amicable solution and we would always advise/recommend that all avenues are exhausted before initiating proceedings. The court process is likely to be long and drawn out, expensive and extremely stressful on all parties.  The theory of mediation is good and is available to matters such as these; allowing families to work together to ensure the children continue to have a good and consistent relationship with their grandparents.  Further, there is the opportunity to enter into arbitration which is accepted as a useful form of dispute resolution allowing for a decision to be made avoiding the stress of the court environment, escalating costs and delay in reaching a swift conclusion which, ultimately, are fundamental considerations when grandparents are advancing in years or in poor health. Failing which, the only options available are negotiations via solicitors’ correspondence or to initiate proceedings at the Family Court. Although filing an application may sound relatively straightforward, legislation provides that grandparents must first seek leave from the court to make an application for a Child Arrangements Order in view of the fact that they do not hold parental responsibility for a child.  In reality it is extremely rare for permission to be refused and the matter will proceed with the court considering the factors they do in cases involving parents, which begs the question should the application for leave be removed altogether?

It would be a proactive step forward for parents to consider the children’s relationship with wider family members, such as grandparents, on separation. Such position is supported by CAFCASS within their suggested parenting plans which prompts for parents to discuss “how will we make sure our children stay in contact with supportive friends or relatives from the other side of the family?”. It is clear that grandparents can play an important role in supporting a child’s needs, social development and understanding themselves and their family history. In light of this and the ‘modern grandparent role’ is it not time that grandparents rights are acknowledged in law?

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