The rights of grandparents to enforce contact with their grandchildren are extremely limited. Grandparents do not have an automatic legal right to enforce contact with their grandchildren.
What does the law currently say about the rights of grandparents?
It is usually always better to try and resolve such a dispute by way of an informal agreement as the court process can be expensive and lengthy. However, in certain circumstances an agreement cannot be reached. In such cases, grandparents can utilise the Family Court’s powers to establish and/or maintain contact with their grandchildren.
It is possible to make an application to the court for a Child Arrangement Order which outlines with whom the child resides, maintains contact and how these arrangements will take place. For the purposes of establishing and/or maintaining contact between a grandparent and a grandchild, the order can set out with whom the child will have contact and how long the contact will last.
How can I apply for a Child Arrangement Order?
The law currently states that grandparents must first submit an application to the court requesting for permission (leave) to apply for a Child Arrangement Order. This is not usually required for parents or guardians and anyone else who holds parental responsibility.
Before an application for permission can be submitted, it must be shown that mediation was considered. Therefore, a compulsory Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting must be attended. The purpose of this meeting is to determine whether the issue can be resolved without court proceedings. During the meeting, the mediator will provide information to all parties in relation to the benefits of mediation and whether mediation is the correct approach in the given circumstances.
If an agreement cannot be reached in relation to establishing contact following the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting, the mediator will sign the relevant court form to confirm that the mediation was considered. It will not be possible to begin court proceedings without the signed form from a mediator.
Contact us if you are currently uncertain as to which route is the most suitable to your circumstances and whether you have a good chance of success should you proceed with making an application to the court.
Court proceedings can commence once the relevant papers have been submitted to the Family Court; it is important to note that at this stage the applicant is only seeking permission from the Family Court to apply for the relevant order. Assuming all forms have been completed correctly, the case will be issued with an application number. The court may thereafter inform the applicant of whether permission has been granted which would subsequently allow an application for a Child Arrangement Order to proceed.
In circumstances where permission is granted, a welfare officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is appointed which is commonly referred to as a Cafcass Welfare Officer; their duty is to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
The court will also provide the parties with a notice that the case has been listed for a Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment; this hearing usually takes place after four to six weeks from the date an application was lodged. It should be noted that there is likely to be more than one hearing before a final decision is made.
What will the Family Court consider when assessing an application for a Child Arrangement Order?
The welfare of children is of paramount consideration during proceedings in the Family Court. In order to achieve this, the court must take into account seven statutory criteria under section 1 (3) of the Children Act 1989. This is most commonly referred to as the welfare checklist which states that the court must have regard to the following:
- the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned;
- his/her physical, emotional and educational needs;
- the likely effect on him/her of any change in his circumstances;
- his/her age, sex, background and any characteristics of his/her which the court considers relevant;
- any harm which he/she has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
- how capable each of his/her parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his/her needs; and
- the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question.
The court will also consider the applicant’s connection to the child and their relationship thus far. The court may also order a Cafcass report to assist in fully considering the welfare checklist; the Cafcass report may take up to 14 weeks to be finalised. During the process of drafting the report, the Cafcass Officer will meet with the child, parents and grandparents in order to conduct a full welfare investigation.
It is important to seek legal advice and assistance before an application is made to the court as this will enable applicants to not only be fully aware of the process but also be mindful of their chances in successfully obtaining an order.
The issue surrounding the rights of grandparents was recently raised during a debate at the House of Commons when MP Nigel Huddleston stated that he had heard of grandparents whom were facing accusations of harassment for sending birthday cards and gifts in cases where contact with their grandchildren had broken down following a divorce. In response to this, Justice minister Lucy Frazer QC has acknowledged that the current system requires improvement in cases where grandparents are attempting to enforce their rights and further stated that a change in the law could therefore, be considered. As a result, it appears that grandparents’ rights in relation to maintaining contact with their grandchildren could be enshrined and protected by law under the Children Act 1989. This is will be a lengthy process and may take a considerable period of time to come into force however, this will be a positive step in the right direction for many grandparents whom are trying very hard to maintain contact with their grandchildren.
Contact us if you are currently trying to establish contact with your grandchild and require further guidance on what steps to take. Our team of family law specialists have extensive experience in dealing with such cases and as such can assist you in achieving your desired outcome in a friendly and professional manner.