The Legal Rights Of Grandparents
I had a close relationship with my paternal grandmother and many other grandparents are also very involved in the day-to-day lives of their grandchildren – stepping in when parents have to work, taking them to appointments and playdates and looking after them during school holidays.
In my practice as a solicitor though, I’ve seen relationships break down between parents and this affects grandparents. It is quite common for them to become isolated and prevented from seeing their grandchildren, or to become embroiled in the conflict.
If this happens, grandparents’ rights in law are very limited as the Children Act doesn’t recognise them as having any automatic rights. If they want contact with their grandchildren, they first have to make an application to get permission to take their case to court.
My advice to most grandparents who find themselves in this situation is to try mediation first. If your relationship with either of the parents of your grandchildren is fraught, a good, experienced mediator can help to open channels of communication and ensure that the relationship with your grandchildren is maintained. Bear in mind however that it is a voluntary process, so if it doesn’t work you may need to contact a solicitor who could enter into correspondence with the parent to suggest how arrangements to see the children might work. As a last resort, an application can be made to the court to seek permission to take a case to request contact.
In my experience, the courts usually grant permission to grandparents who wish to spend time with their grandchildren. What’s best for the child underpins the whole legislation, and courts recognise that in the vast majority of cases, contact with grandparents is very beneficial.
This means there are also instances when the courts can grant extra responsibilities. I advised the grandmother of a young child whose father had been involved in her life, but the child’s mother had mental health difficulties so it was not safe for the child to be with her. The court granted a joint order for the child to live with the father and grandmother equally. This meant the grandmother shared the responsibility for making important decisions affecting her grandchild.
It’s imperfect legislation for imperfect relationships and one which needs reform to recognise the enormous role some grandparents play in their grandchildren’s lives. I was fortunate that my mum encouraged my contact with my paternal grandmother, others are not so lucky.