Grandparents can play a very special part in children’s lives, not only at Christmas, but all year round. Their role can be key in their day to day care, development and understanding of personal relationships.
Understandably upon a family breakdown, relationships between grandparents and grandchildren can be destabilised. If one parent becomes hostile towards an ex and their family, the impact on the children can be far wider than a rift between two parents. In implacably hostile cases, the children can lose relationships with maternal and/or paternal grandparents.
In most cases, a grandparent will maintain the relationship with the child through the parent; effectively bolting on to the parent/child relationship. When a child spends time with their mother or father, usually they will spend time with that parent’s network of family and friends. This should ensure that there is as much consistency and as little disruption to the child’s social and familial circles. The grandparents’ relationship with the grandchild is therefore very much dependent on having a positive relationship with their own child.
It can become extremely difficult for a grandparent if their relationship with the grandchild becomes compromised because the mother or father cannot promote that relationship. This may occur if the relationship between grandparent and parent is strained, or they are estranged. In extreme cases, the parent may not be deemed suitable to look after their child and the grandparents may then need to consider how they can continue to be part of their grandchild’s life. If neither parent is willing or able to maintain a relationship between the child and their grandparents, then it may be for the grandparents to consider applying to the Family Court local to the child for a Child Arrangements Order.
Grandparents do not have automatic “parental responsibility”, so they cannot simply write to the Court with a usual application to spend time with a child. A grandparent would need to first apply for permission to bring such an application. The grandparent(s) would have to state why they should be allowed to ask the Court to make an order; normally this would include why the grandparent is unable spend time with their grandchild, the relationship that the grandchild has enjoyed with them and why it is in the child’s best interests for the grandchildren to be allowed to bring the application.
Ultimately, the Court would then assess the child’s welfare and has the discretion to make an order that they consider is best for the child. In any application or dispute relating to children, the welfare of a child is the paramount consideration. As part of this assessment, the Court will look at various factors such as the wishes and feelings of the child, their age and understanding, their educational and developmental needs, consequences of change and capabilities of parents (or grandparents if applicable) to care for the child.
Grandparents can sometimes step in as main carers for children if neither parent is capable of doing so. The Court can make orders called Special Guardianship Orders, which confer parental responsibility on a grandparent. In some ways an SGO is similar to an Adoption order, but unlike formal adoption, an SGO does not take away the parental responsibility of a parent. The grandparents who have an SGO are afforded similar parental status to a parent of the child and the grandparent may then be eligible for support and funding from the Local Authority.
Amendments to the Children Act 1989 were discussed by Parliament earlier this year. Lobbyists and grandparents’ rights groups wish to extend the remit of the Act so that a child has a right to a close relationship with members of their extended family. The discussions included amendments to cover the rights of aunts and uncles seeing their nieces and nephews. The MOJ will consider the proposals, but it will be important that legislation does not permit unwarranted or unfounded applications.
It is prudent that grandparents who are involved in disputes relating to grandchildren take early legal advice. A grandparent’s actions will need to be carefully balanced against the positions that have been adopted by either parent and of course, in light of the child(ren)’s welfare.