The rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren following a divorce are again in the spotlight after MPs debated the issue in Parliament. Currently, no family members, other than the child’s parents, have an automatic right to apply for contact.
Having shared their constituents’ experiences, a group of MPs are calling for the government to enshrine in law the right of contact for grandparents.
The scale of the issue was illustrated by one experience recounted by the MP for mid-Worcestershire, Nigel Huddleston. He highlighted the case of grandparents who had been accused of harassment, and were visited by police, after sending birthday cards and Christmas gifts to their grandchildren.
No Presumption of Rights
Darren Jones MP read out a statement from a couple in his Bristol constituency who had not seen their grandchild for 11 years, saying how the experience had been “heartbreaking” for them. He said, "I had no idea this was a problem before I became an MP, as there is just a presumption that grandparents have a right to see their grandchildren.”
Currently, only parents have an automatic right to apply to the court for a child arrangements order. Other relatives, including Grandparents, must first apply to the court for permission to make an application to spend time with a child and then subsequently apply for child arrangements.
In family proceedings involving children, the Court’s first priority is the child’s welfare. There are seven criteria set out in the welfare checklist which the Court must consider - none of which give direct consideration to a grandparent (or indeed any other relative) seeing a child after parental relationship breakdown.
Clearly, this is insufficient and such criteria should make specific reference to extended family if the child has enjoyed a good relationship with them.
High Time for a Review of the Law
The issue of access rights for grandparents was last examined in 2011 as part of the independent Family Justice Review. The report recommended that Child Arrangements Orders stay in place to "prevent hopeless or vexatious applications that are not in the interests of the child".
Following the recent debate and statements made by MPs about the harrowing stories of separation between children and their extended families, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said, "The welfare of a child is the primary consideration for the family courts and steps are taken wherever possible to reduce the impact of family conflict on children when relationships end.
"We will consider any proposals for helping children maintain involvement with grandparents, together with other potential reforms to the family justice system, which are currently being looked at."
An amendment to the Children Act is being proposed which would include a child's right to have a close relationship with members of their extended family – with grandparents as well as aunts and uncles.
Such changes in the law would provide an automatic route for relatives to spend time with children. At present, the process is time consuming and requires a decision to be made as to whether the application should even be made in the first place. This is not in the best interests of children who have previously enjoyed a loving relationship with their relatives and are effectively deprived of this continuing when their parents separate.
Although it is good this issue is being debated, any changes to the family justice system won’t happen overnight. Indeed, it could take several years before this becomes law, if at all. However, there are still steps that can be taken to maintain that critical relationship between a child and their grandparents, as well as other relatives.