Grandparents play a vital role in family life and are the nucleus around which many families revolve. Findings released by Grandparents Plus and Age UK show that the total number of hours for which grandparents are responsible for childcare currently stands at 1.7 billion; one in three families are dependent on grandparents for childcare. Sadly, statistics also show that almost half of all grandparents are cut off completely and never see their grandchildren again following their son’s or even daughter’s partnership or marriage breakdown. Grandchildren in turn, lose the special relationship, emotional support and guidance that a grandparent can provide.
Grandparents do not have to throw up their arms in despair and simply accept being alienated from their grandchildren. There are several options grandparents may explore to gain contact (formerly access) to their grandchildren.
An initial option is for grandparents to approach the children's parents and discuss the negative impact the reduction or loss of contact may have on the children especially at a time when they are upset and perhaps confused with the breakup of their parents’ relationship. If a face to face meeting is not possible then grandparents may consider expressing their concerns in writing whether by letter or in an e-mail. It is important that grandparents stay away from apportioning blame for the breakup of the parents’ relationship and concentrate solely on the fact that maintaining contact will help provide stability and consistency for their grandchildren.
If the letter does not result in a positive response, grandparents may consider making a referral to a family mediation service. Mediation will take place in a safe neutral environment where the parents and grandparents will have the benefit of meeting with a trained independent mediator who will try to negotiate a resolution. Depending upon how strained relationships are within the separated family, grandparents may find that their request for mediation is ignored. However, if parents are willing to engage in this process, mediation often results in a satisfactory outcome.
If all the grandparents’ attempts at an amicable resolution fail then they may consider as a final option applying to the court for permission to apply for a contact order under the Children Act 1989. Taking the matter to court will no doubt be a huge step for grandparents but they can be reassured by the fact that the court will only allow their application once it has considered whether the grandparents have a meaningful connection with their grandchildren and how contact will affect them. If permission is granted for a contact application, the court will then consider what is in the child’s best interest. Often a report will be prepared by a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer who will look at whether there are any welfare issues (i.e. safety issues whether physical or emotional) which have to be addressed. If the CAFCASS report is positive, parents often relent and allow contact having seen that it is not just pushy, interfering grandparents but loved ones with valuable contributions to make to their children’s lives. However, if parents do not agree with the CAFCASS officer’s report the case will ultimately be decided by the court having heard oral evidence from all parties and considering what is in the children’s best interests as being paramount.
If the court makes an order that contact takes place, this may be for direct contact where the grandparents can physically spend time with their grandchildren or indirect contact where grandparents may speak with their grandchildren over the telephone, through letters or over the social media. The court will attach a warning notice to any contact order made which clearly sets out to the parents the consequences of disobeying the order. It is only the most belligerent of parents who will disobey a court order and so once an order has been made in the grandparents favour, contact is usually re-established with grandchildren. Although having to take the matter through the court may be an emotional experience for grandparents, a successful outcome in having contact with their grandchildren is ultimately worth it.
As many grandparents do not know if they can do anything when contact with their grandchildren is being denied unreasonably, it is important that this message is passed on.
Please contact Carline Gayle-Buckle if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.