The role of grandparents, who are also victims of family break-ups, is frequently overlooked. Often they lose contact with children involved as the estranged partner moves to a new area or strained relationships with ex-partners make contact difficult. This both denies the grandparent the joy of watching the children grow up and means children miss out on the valuable nurturing that older generations can bring to their development.
Many believe that grandparents should be given a legal presumption to contact with their grandchildren in acknowledgement of the importance of grandparents at the heart of the family and of the benefits they can provide to parents coping with a growing family. Grandparents provide childcare worth more than £1 billion a year.
Dealing with the Loss of Contact
When a grandchild expresses a wish not to see their grandparent any more it can be terribly hurtful and can make some grandparents, who perhaps don’t understand what is going on, very angry. Don’t be angry; do not reject your grandchildren or disown them; to become angry with them is to be drawn into the trap which has been set for you.
As a grandparent you have no formal legal right to contact with your grandchildren; no real law or precedent has been set that gives grandparents contact rights so it is still difficult to try to legally safeguard contact. It is largely reliant on the good will of the parties involved but the court will get involved if it is in the best interests of the child.
The most common reason why a grandparent loses contact with a child is that one of the parents has lost contact or is being excluded. If that parent's contact can be restored then the grandparent's contact will, in most cases, automatically follow. This gives rise to the most common objection raised to a grandparent having contact, which is that, if granted, the parent will get contact through the back door.
The first step for a grandparent who fears losing contact should be to approach the child’s mother or father and explain that, no matter what the problems are between the parents, you as a grandparent do not intend to take sides and that you only wish to maintain contact with your grandchildren.
If that is not successful, you can try mediation. For this to take place, both sides have to agree to mediate. It is not a compulsory process and may not be right for all.
Very often the best thing you can do is to support your son or daughter’s application for residence or contact and give them all the emotional support and love that you can at what is a terribly traumatic time for all of your family. If you can, also provide practical and financial support.
The final resort is an application to the court. Here grandparents are at a disadvantage compared with parents since it is first necessary for them to apply for leave to make an application. This is the first hurdle. The parent may object, in which case the court must be persuaded, usually by way of a hearing, that the grandparent had a meaningful and ongoing relationship with the child and that it is in his or her best interests for this relationship to continue.
Applying for Contact
You can apply for ‘leave’ (permission) from the court to make a Section 8 application if, for example, your own son or daughter is preventing you from seeing your grandchildren; normally your contact with your grandchildren would be expected to come out of the parent’s contact. If you are the grandparent or sibling of a child you must make an application under part 18 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010.
When courts allow grandparents contact they usually order that their contact and the parent’s contact run concurrently; obviously if the parent is getting minimal contact that will affect the grandparent, so it is worthwhile applying for separate contact, bearing in mind that the court may suspect you of trying to win extra contact for your son or daughter through the back door. If you do decide to pursue an application you will have to accept that it will be an unpleasant, prolonged and stressful experience with the usual pattern of false allegations and delay.
The application for leave is made on Form C2.
Under Section 10(9) of the Children Act the court must consider:
· the nature of your application;
· your connection with the child;
· any risk that the application may disrupt the child’s life to the extent that harm is caused, and;
· where the child is in local authority care, the authority’s plans for the child’s future and the wishes and feelings of the parents.
To support your application you will need to think about these points and prepare answers to them.
If court proceedings are already on-going in respect of the child you can request, at Question 6, to be made a party to them.
If there are no on-going proceedings and you are granted leave to make an application you must then complete Form C100. At Question 3 you must give details of both parents, and at Question 7 detail whether you want an order for contact or for residence.
If that hurdle is crossed, your application will then be considered. More often than not, there will be welfare issues to be determined and the court will appoint a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) officer to prepare a report which will be presented to the court. These take between 12 and 16 weeks to complete.
When you are interviewed by a CAFCASS case worker you will need to present your family as close-knit and normal, and your child as a loving and committed parent. Emphasise the close bonds between yourself and your children and your involvement in the lives of your grandchildren.
If the CAFCASS report is favourable, the parent with care may still not agree, which will mean a full hearing with both sides having to give evidence.
If the court finally makes an order but the mother or father refuses contact, it is unfortunately, very difficult to enforce the order. This could be because taking action against someone who refuses to comply with an order could, ultimately, lead to the parent going to prison, which courts say is not in the best interests of the child.
It is important, therefore, that when there are problems, legal advice is sought about the options available. Early advice will allow you to understand your options and act in an appropriate way so as not to unsettle what could be a very delicate situation. Please see our section on Enforcement of Contact Orders.