Improving legal recognition for grandparents
Grandparents currently do not fall under the category of people who may apply for a contact order under the Children Act 1989 (the Act) other than in very limited circumstances. Therefore, they have no legal redress should they lose contact with their grandchildren, be that following a rift with their own child or after a divorce in the family,
Grandparents may be bereft when contact is lost; this could also impact on the grandchild as their family "support network" may shrink as a result. In addition, research suggests that grandparents increasingly play an invaluable role emotionally and financially for families. However, to date these many benefits have not been formally recognised.
The Labour Government outlined a major review into the family justice system, including providing grandparents with extra recognition and an automatic right of access to their grandchildren. The new coalition Government has recently announced similar plans, stating that grandparents can play a vital role, particularly following a separation or divorce. They intend to look at providing greater access rights to the non-resident parent and grandparents.
The situation would be different if a grandparent posed a threat to a child, or if there was a legitimate reason why the child did not have contact with them. It is envisaged that in deciding these cases, courts will continue to have at the forefront of their thinking what would be in that child's best interests. The competing interests of the bereft grandparent would have to be balanced against the wishes, feelings and the impact that any contact would have on that child.
Although exact details are awaited, it is anticipated that grandparents will be included within the current Act, enabling them to apply for a contact order. A contact order requires the person with whom a child lives to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in that order. These applications are made on a prescribed form which can be obtained from Her Majesty's Court Service website and can be dealt with by most county courts.
Although referring matters to the court should generally be the last resort, such changes to legislation should highlight to parents the important role grandparents can play. These measures should also help to empower grandparents to ensure that contact with their grandchildren is not lost.
Grace Parker-White is a Senior Associate in the Family and Matrimonial Department at Stevens & Bolton LLP.
Grace can be contacted on +44 (0)1483 401250 or by email: email@example.com