Recently, I was a guest on the BBC Breakfast Show. I was invited on to discuss the highly emotive issue of grandparents’ contact rights.
There are many grandparents who, for a multitude of reasons, are stopped from seeing their much-loved grandchildren. The distress and loss many feel can be enormous. For many millions of children, parents are a source of cheap childcare for their own children and are a much needed stop gap to enable parents to go to work without paying a fortune in childminding or nursery fees. Grandparents provide safety, food, love and attention in spades. Then one day there is a breakdown. The marriage may be ending, there may be a death in the family, or an argument that develops into a feud. So contact between grandparents and beloved grandchildren suddenly, terribly, stops. The grandchildren, too, may suffer significant emotional harm if they too suddenly lose regular contact with their Granny or Grandpa. The numbers of estranged grandparents are on the rise and many are applying to the courts in increasing numbers to continue to see their grandchildren.
So what can you do if a loving relationship is suddenly cut off by one or even both of the parents?
The first thing I would do is offer some strong and radical advice to any grandparents who find themselves in such a situation. Forget about standing on your principles. Stop blaming the parents. It’s just not worth it. They are in control of the situation, not you. Don’t be afraid to take a long hard look at your own conduct, and any ways in which you may have contributed to the situation you know find yourself in. This can be done either on your own, together, or with a therapist skilled in family breakdown.
Ask yourself: is it possible that I have upset one or both of the parents? And if so, was this a one-off or has the situation been going on for years? Be brutally honest. Don’t hide behind the idea that it’s all one way and only the parent is at fault. You may be entirely unaware of any hurt you may have unintentionally caused by a thoughtless remark or action. Perhaps whatever you may have said or done was misreported or misunderstood, perhaps even by the grandchildren. At the end of the day, I don’t think it matters who is right or wrong and indeed whether the parents themselves behaved badly which they may well have done. What matters is seeing your grandchildren again, and them seeing you.
You may come to conclusion after soul searching that indeed YOU are the root cause of the problems you are facing. Or there again you may not. But in either case I think you should choose the conciliatory path. Don’t be afraid to calmly ask the parent concerned what you’ve done to reach this point. Ask to come over for a coffee. Say you want to put it right by any means possible. Do this by phone, email or letter and I’d suggest you keep a copy. Do keep whatever you say contained and unemotional. Be prepared, however, to apologise, and frankly, to keep on apologising. Some people need this. Be prepared to agree to terms presented by the parent that would allow you to put the situation right all the rancour behind you and see your grandchildren again. Learn from the situation. There is a lot at stake here. In short, get off your high horse try a new direction and see what happens. Again I’d also advise you to document everything.
If this doesn’t work, you can suggest mediation, whether through a professional or a trusted friend or adviser, or even family therapy. If communications have broken down, put the suggestion in writing. Again: keep a copy.
Do then, if this too doesn’t work, attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM). As the name suggests, these are official meetings held to assess the suitability of a situation for mediation. And most situations are suitable. The parent(s) will be invited to attend too although they aren’t obliged to do so, (although if proceedings later occur it won’t look good) but if they do you may find that a course of mediation will do the trick. You could also be eligible for legal aid as this is still available for mediation. You need to attend a MIAM in any event before you can apply to the family court.
But what if, in spite of your best efforts, the MIAM doesn’t work? Then it’s time to apply to the courts. That is what they are there for after all – to resolve legal issues –and access to your grandchildren is one such issue.
Remember that the court will consider the case ONLY from the perspective of the child. What is in the child’s best interests? Would contact with you be the best thing for them? Would they be losing out if they don’t see you? It doesn’t matter what you want or what the parent wants. All that matters, as far as the courts are concerned, is the welfare of the child. That is the paramount consideration.
From a practical perspective, I would recommend first reading the Child Arrangements Programme on the Justice.gov.uk website, and then the flowchart which documents the process. They are lengthy but explain exactly what will happen.
Briefly you will need to complete Form C100, seeking a child arrangements order to spend time with your grandchildren and lodge this at your local family court, paying a fee of £215. Because you don’t have parental responsibility for the grandchildren, you will first need to obtain permission of the court to proceed with your application. As long as that is granted the application will be heard.
In practice what will happen is that your case will probably be referred to the local lay magistrates who sit at the Family Court. Cafcass will be notified of your application but will only consider any urgent safeguarding issues at that point.
In considering a hearing for permission to proceed the court will apply Section 10 of the Children Act 1989 and in this case will consider:
(a)the nature of the proposed application
(b)the applicant’s connection with the child;
(c)any risk there might be of that proposed application disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that he would be harmed by it
In most cases permission will be granted. Problems might arise where both parents with parental responsibility have jointly decided against continuing contact with the grandparents and both object to permission being granted. The court might be loathe to interfere with the reasonable wishes of both parents, but it will want to consider why the parents have made that decision in the light of the welfare of the child concerned.
A first hearing dispute resolution appointment will follow a successful application for permission. Sometimes the two applications are heard on the same date depending on the time available.
The court must do everything it can to sort out the case. For example, it may be adjourned to allow a further attempt at mediation. And you know, it might just work the second time around. It’s amazing how a court room can concentrate minds. The case could also be stood down to allow negotiations. If it doesn’t settle it will go on to a further dispute resolution hearing, but in the meantime the court will have made case management orders, such as a report to be obtained and statements to be filed. If the case still fails to settle at the second hearing, it will be listed for a final hearing when the parties will explain their position.
The court must at all times consider the welfare of the child and give a voice to the child if possible. How is the child to be involved? By the Cafcass officer or in some cases by agreement, an independent social worker preparing a report? Alternatively, a letter to the Judge from the child may be appropriate. The court must always be mindful of events happening in the child’s life and in all cases not add to the pressure on the child so it is best, for example, to try and avoid exam periods.
As you can see, at every possible stage the court is required to be active and to do its best to resolve the issues between the family. And in return, it will expect cooperation and conciliation if at all possible from the family.
But if this, sadly, is not forthcoming and a court order is made in the teeth of opposition, then enforcement of the order is possible under Section 11 Children Act 1989. The court can order unpaid work, make compensation orders for financial loss or even issues fines. It can send a defaulter to prison, but those types of orders are self-evidently remedies of last resort.
The majority of cases which go to court, do eventually settle, so if handled sensibly, with a huge readiness to compromise at every stage for the sake of the grandchildren, then I would expect good results in most instances. So please, do take heed: standing on principles convinced only that you are right, when so much is at stake is an expensive choice in most civil litigation, but in family cases it can also be a recipe for misery.