The Government signalled this week in a letter to MP its intent to introduce legislation, not only to give fathers equal parenting rights, but also to oblige the courts to consider grandparents’ rights on the breakdown of a relationship. The high cost of childcare in the UK, as compared with other countries, means that grandparents are increasingly taking over a child-rearing role. Upon a separation or a divorce, the impact of the severance of that close bond between child and grandparent can be felt very keenly. It is a fact that the role of the grandparent is often down played and underestimated in the battle that can ensue between the parents.
First Steps

Many grandparents are able to continue to see their grandchildren through visits brought about by the children’s parent, that is, their son or daughter. This may not always be the case, particularly if the separation is acrimonious. If you find yourself in the situation where you are losing, or have lost, access to your grandchildren, the first step you must do is to attempt to communicate with the child’s parent who is causing the problem with contact, if your own child cannot intervene. This can often be difficult but often, an olive branch attempt, to communicate with the mother directly, can lead to resolution in access situations. Grandparents who have a strong bond with their grandchildren and refuse to take sides in the impending separation tend to fare well. A well written letter to the parent requesting access, yet stating they will not interfere or get involved in any subsequent parental arguments can often open communication levels, leading to a suitable resolution. When seeing the children, the single most important thing is not to denigrate or criticise the parent, as this will almost always be reported back, resulting in disastrous consequences for your relationship with your grandchild.

If this attempt does not work, the next step would be mediation through court. You can request mediation, but the other party must also agree to this. Sometimes it is impossible to get agreement on even going to mediation in extreme cases and therefore might not be a suitable step for you to take. Another way could be to arrange a family counselling session, involving the children themselves, especially if they are teenagers. Depending on the maturity of the children, they quite often would like their views aired and taken into account during a breakdown, and it may well be in their interests for that to take place.
Contact Order

Only parents can automatically apply for a Contact Order. The law allows for grandparents to apply for leave (permission of the court) to make an application. In simple terms, this means you must apply to be able to be considered for contact. Here, you will be asked to demonstrate to the Court, that you have a longstanding and loving bond with the children in question, and that you do not pose a risk to their emotional or physical wellbeing. If you are granted leave, a report may be made regarding the welfare issues of the child. If such a report is ordered to be prepared, a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer will be appointed to assist the court in coming to a decision.
If the report is shown to be favourable to you, this can often persuade the parent with care to come to an agreement. However, if this is not the case, the court will make a decision based on what is in the best interests of the child. Ultimately the judge will rule on whether and what contact will take place, but will be heavily influenced by the views of the Cafcass officer, and will need to give good reasons from departing from the report.
Separations can be difficult and emotions are clearly running high at this particular time. When children are at their most vulnerable during a separation, the role of the grandparent can be crucial in providing the loving care and stability, away from any domestic disputes. Unfortunately, as the law currently stands, grandparents do not have an automatic right to access to their grandchildren. But in my experience, judges recognise the importance of grandparents and do grant contact/access orders, where it is in the children’s best interests; unless it really would cause so much disharmony at home that the children would be adversely affected. Normally, such disagreements are dealt with, far away from court, when the dust has been allowed to settle following a marital breakup. If resolution can be sought and maintained through mediation, for the best interests of the children, this would be the practical solution during a painful time.



© Punam Denley, November 2012

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