What rights do grandparents have?
Unfortunately, during the breakdown of some relationships, grandparents are deprived of contact with their grandchildren. Whilst grandparents have no automatic legal rights in these circumstances, there are steps that can be taken to try to maintain contact with their grandchildren.
If a grandparent fears that they may lose contact with their grandchildren during the breakdown of their son or daughter’s relationship, they should consider approaching the child’s mother or father at an early stage, making it clear that they do not intend to take sides, but simply wish to maintain contact with their grandchild(ren).
In some circumstances, relationships between a grandparent and their son/daughter-in-law, or even their own children, may have broken down to such an extent that it is not practical to approach them directly for a discussion. In such cases, a referral to mediation is an option, whereby an independent mediator will try to help reach an agreement. However, as all parties must agree to this approach, it may not be suitable.
If it is not possible to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement out of court, grandparents may wish to consult a specialist family lawyer for information on court proceedings.
It is possible for grandparents to make an application to the court; however, a grandparent does not have an automatic right to apply for a contact order and instead will have to apply to court for permission to make that application. The grandparent(s) must show that they have an important and meaningful connection with the child in question in order to be successful.
If a grandparent is granted leave to apply for contact, then the court will go on to consider their application for contact. This will often involve the appointment of a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer, who will be required to submit a report for the court to consider as part of the decision-making process. There may or may not be a full hearing, depending on whether the parent with care agrees with the CAFCASS report or whether the parties remain in dispute.
If the court decides that contact between the child and the grandparent(s) is in the child’s best interests, they will grant a contact order to this effect. It is very difficult for parents to ignore contact orders and the courts do have some powers to enforce such orders.
During a law review earlier this year, the relationship between grandchildren and grandparents following relationship breakdown was considered. Whilst the review’s recommendations appear to have stopped short of giving grandparents any legal rights of access, it did recommend the use of ‘Parenting Agreements’, which should set out explicitly how children will continue to maintain contact with their grandparents.
The review panel remained unconvinced by some arguments that the courts were unreasonably refusing grandparents leave to apply for contact, or that the process was slow and expensive. In fact the rationale behind the necessity for grandparents to apply for permission to make an application for contact is that the process allegedly helps weed out hopeless or vexatious applications.
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