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On 4 September in Westminster, grandparents and family professionals gathered together for Broken Bonds, a grandparent’s action day.
The event explored the plight of grandchildren estranged from their grandparents following a divorce or separation; a problem that is estimated to affect at least 1million children in the UK.
The speaker list included Dame Esther Rantzen, Nigel Huddleston, MP for Mid-Worcestershire and Dr Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon.
Sadly, although the event was heavily attended by grandparents there were minimal MPs due to the distraction of latest voting on Brexit.
The grandparents who were present told heart-wrenching stories of their separation from their grandchildren and spoke of it as emotional abuse. They talked of how their bond with children of the family had been great, warm, unconditional and a place of refuge which had now been torn apart. We also heard of individuals having taken their life by suicide, considered it or even just wanting to die early to end the pain from the broken relationships.
There were plenty of discussions about how the change in law should focus on the right of the child to a relationship with his/her grandparent rather than a right of a grandparent (in line with how it is currently recorded for a parent).
The idea behind this is to avoid the argument that it is a demand by a grandparent or vexatious application as if the child does not want the relationship it would not be pursued.
This created a further debate in respect of instances of parental alienation where a child had been ‘brainwashed’ against a grandparent and whether the nominated Court social worker (CAFCASS) would be able to see through this and make positive recommendations.
Due to current understaffing and overworked officers, we heard of horror stories of rushed reports which sadly we see as children practitioners regularly.
The other worry we heard from the ministers was that there would be a sudden influx of applications that the court would not be able to manage. There was, therefore, a practical suggestion of a specialist court to fast track these applications but sadly no answers to how this would be funded.
A lot of those present were part of support groups and found this extremely helpful. Other grandparents, who presently are unable to spend time with their grandchildren suggested sending cards/presents/text messages and keep a memory box in case they were not shown or rejected, keep special items with a personal note of what it means to you and even open an account for them for money for their future.
One lady spoke of being served with a harassment warning notice after sending just 3 letters and therefore I do add the warning to consider carefully if attempting this method of communication and if asked to stop to take legal advice.
We heard statistics that three-quarters of all parents responsible for cutting off grandparents from their grandchildren were daughters or daughters in law, that was shocking to me but with the explanation of maternal lines controlling the children, it seemed to explain this sad statistic.
So, what is the current law for grandparents?
Would you be surprised to hear that as a grandparent you have no automatic legal right to a relationship with your grandson or granddaughter?
Or that a child does not have an automatic right to a relationship with his/her grandparents or in fact any relative who does not have parental responsibility.
In my experience, most families can reach an agreement out of court to arrange times that grandparents can spend with their grandchildren but sadly there are some families that don’t.
If families cannot agree, grandparents could invite the parents to mediation to try and reach an amicable agreement.
How can the courts help?
If this is not successful then under the current law, the grandparents would need to ask for a ‘leave of the court’. This is the court’s permission for an application to spend time with the child.
Sounds straightforward? Well, for grandparents, there is an additional legal step that they need to take first. They are required to complete an additional court fee and a possible court hearing to establish why they should have permission to see the child.
The court will consider:
The nature of the proposed application
The applicant’s connection with the child.
Any risk of disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it.
When the child is being looked after by a local authority what the authority’s plans for the child’s future are, and the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents.
If permission is obtained, then the court will use the same factors to determine the grandparent’s application as they would with parents.
The overriding principle of this decision is the child’s welfare and grandparents need to satisfy the welfare checklist, as the parents would. However, there is no presumption by the courts, as there is with parents, that there should be contact between a grandparent and child unless there is a good reason not to.
Caselaw has seen bitterness between grandparents and parents lead to a refusal of a contact application due to potential emotional harm and this covered indirect contact too.