Many grandparents are surprised to discover that they do not have automatic rights of residence or contact with their grandchildren. But could their rights be about to improve?
This week it is my turn not to criticise, but to praise the Conservative Party. Newspapers have reported that the Conservatives, if they win the next election, intend to give new, improved legal rights to millions of grandparents in England and Wales.
According to the Daily Mail:
The law will be changed to ensure [grandparents] do not lose contact with their grandchildren after a family separation, divorce or bereavement.
They will also be put at the front of the custody queue if their grandchildren face being fostered or taken into care.
As it happens, I am currently advising the research team at one of Britain’s best-loved soaps on this same subject. The storyline is top secret though! I have had lengthy discussions with the researchers about current law; they were incredulous to discover that the blood relationship between a child and a grandparent means nothing in law.
If grandparents want automatic access to their children or if, as in more extreme cases, they want their grandchildren to live with them, they must jump through two sets of legal hoops. First, they must obtain leave of the court to make their application. If successful, only then may they apply for an order.
Given the state of current law, many hapless grandchildren become caught up in a tug of war. So in practice, although grandparents may apply to the court for an order, the potential impact on their grandchildren and the non-recoverable cost of applying to the courts means that in many cases, the grandparents simply give up.
Current law states that the welfare of the children is paramount. Therefore the court must look at the situation from that perspective. And in so doing the root of the problem becomes immediately clear.
I have spoken to many grandparents who all appear to have made the same mistake. They can’t help themselves. It’s natural because blood is thicker than water. They side with their own child against the spouse, often to prevent their own money passing out of the family. They become too emotionally involved in the divorce, feeling their child’s pain of their child; they worry too much; they become distressed. Worst of all, unable to prevent themselves, they speak badly of their former son or daughter-in-law to their grandchildren. Inevitably the grandchildren repeat those comments – and thus at some stage, another battle begins.
I have lost count of the emotional and agitated grandparents who come to my office and sit with their son or daughter, throwing petrol on the fire. They think they are helping their child; in fact they are causing substantial harm to themselves.
My advice? Don’t go near the lawyer’s office!
If your child was old enough to get married and have a family without parental help, then that child is old enough to get divorced without your help. There is little you can do, and you need to keep calm.
“Ah yes”, you will reply, “but parents are parents all their lives! How can they stop being parents? Their first loyalty is to their child.”
That is true: I tell my son that I will always be his mum through thick and thin. But parenting skills don’t stop when a child becomes an adult. Standing back from the fray and offering wise counsel to all is infinitely better than diving in headfirst.
Of course, money can complicate matter. It can make people – grandparents included – lose their senses.
I was involved in one recent case in which the husband and his father combined forces to defeat the wife’s claims. The husband pleaded poverty; all his assets were acquired in his father’s name. No surprise then that his children refused to have anything to do with the paternal grandparents who, in their view, had betrayed their impoverished mother.
The children were old enough to instruct the judge when the grandparents attempted, fruitlessly, to renew contact. These grandchildren never want to see their grandparents again.
I have had some clients who have praised their in-laws. It must be said, however, that the vast majority have not. The simple truth, I suspect, is that nobody is perfect. We reap what we sow.
Even if your grown-up children are just finding their potential partners, I recommend that you bite your lip and hold your tongue. You can never know how long someone will hold a grudge for. You don’t ever want to find out. Neither do your grandchildren.