Grandparents will always want to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives and, beyond the purely personal, they often have a crucial contribution to make towards childcare.
Sometimes, however, this crucial relationship is severed, with the divorce of the child’s parents often the primary reason. With personal relationships deteriorating, grandparents can find themselves cut adrift, unable to visit or contact their own grandchildren.
Because of this, a new trend has been developing in the world of family law over the last decade: grandparents turning to the courts to secure access to their grandchildren.
In 2018, an average of seven applications a day were made by grandparents for a court order that would grant them time with a grandchild after the breakdown of a relationship between the child’s parents. This is not a new phenomenon: in 2014, 1,617 applications for child arrangements orders were made, which rose to almost 2,000 by 2016.
With this trend increasing in regularity, it is vital that grandparents know their rights and the intricacies of the process if the worst were to happen.
While the Children Act 1989 gave some powers to step-parents, grandparents still have no automatic right to contact with their grandchildren. This means that if relationships between grandparents and the parents of the children break down, contact can be withdrawn.
There are, however, steps that can be taken to overcome this divide.
The first, and arguably most preferable, method is to liaise directly with the parents of the child and try to work out a contact plan. While this is an informal arrangement, it is still always beneficial to seek the advice of a lawyer to ensure you are prepared, and prepped, for any eventuality. Creating an informal agreement will prevent potentially lengthy court proceedings and ensure that the children involved are not placed under any external pressure.
This, however, is not always possible. If this doesn’t work, the next recommended step is for a grandparent to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) in order to explore the possibility of mediation. Not only is legal aid available for mediation, but conflicts can often be solved faster and more amicably this way. If the parties have legal representation, the mediator will speak to the lawyers ahead of the mediation session to ascertain the key issues. If the parties do not have legal representation, then the mediator will speak to the parties directly.
The aim of this conversation is to minimize time being wasted at the mediation session itself. At the session itself, the mediator will explain the process to the parties, typically at a joint session. Thereafter, the mediator will have private discussions with each party with the aim of helping them negotiate a settlement.
In any case, an applicant grandparent will need to show that they attended a MIAM in order to apply for a child arrangements order, unless they are exempt, in cases of domestic violence for instance.
If mediation is also unsuccessful, the final recourse is the courts. In order to do this, the grandparents involved must fill out a C100 application form and send it to their nearest family court. A fee of £215 will be charged although individuals will be eligible for financial support.
The court will apply Section 10 of the Children Act when considering this application, taking into account the nature of the application, the applicant’s relationship with the child and the risk that the application will disrupt the child’s life to such an extent that the child would be harmed.
If permission is granted, the grandparent will need to show that they had an "important, meaningful" relationship with the child before the contact stopped, and that it is in the child’s best interests that the contact continues. The child’s best interests are always paramount in the decision making process of the court.
In most instances, contact will be granted and difficulty will only arise if both parents have jointly agreed that the child in question should not have contact with their grandparents. In this instance, the court will want to avoid interfere with the wishes of the parents, providing the basis of this decision is deemed to be reasonable.
Having a top level lawyer by your side during this process will ensure your arguments are put across cogently and strengthen your case for contact.
No matter the choice of proceedings, Vardags can offer expert advice and support. We offer expertise covering all areas of children law, including child living arrangements, international relocation of children and child abduction. For grandparents seeking contact, we can help guide you through this process, whichever avenue you choose to pursue, and ensure your arguments are codified and presented effectively if the matter does end up in court.
As well as those starting a case, we can also help those seeking new legal support in an ongoing case, or considering reopening an old case. Even if you wish to avoid going to court, and would prefer more informal options, having top level legal advice can help to bring your case to a swift and successful conclusion.
Whatever the circumstances, having a top family solicitor on your side can make an enormous difference to the final outcome.