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Broken Bonds: Grandparents rights after a divorce

On 4 September in Westminster, grandparents and family professionals gathered together for Broken Bonds, a grandparent’s action day.

The event explored the plight of grandchildren estranged from their grandparents following a divorce or separation; a problem that is estimated to affect at least 1million children in the UK.

The speaker list included Dame Esther Rantzen, Nigel Huddleston, MP for Mid-Worcestershire and Dr Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon.

The event was organised by Lorraine Bushell from Hendon Grandparents Support Group and attended by leading divorce lawyer, Vanessa Lloyd Platt, the proprietor of Lloyd Platt & Company, who advises and supports the campaign.

Sarah Jane Lenihan, Senior Solicitor, from our London Victoria office also attended and shares her experience on the blog today.

Broken bonds

Last week, I attended an action day at Westminster, run by a grandparents group to get the attention of the MPs and media.  Sadly, although the event was heavily attended by grandparents there were minimal MPs due to the distraction of latest voting on Brexit.

The grandparents who were present told heart-wrenching stories of their separation from their grandchildren and spoke of it as emotional abuse.  They talked of how their bond with children of the family had been great, warm, unconditional and a place of refuge which had now been torn apart.  We also heard of individuals having taken their life by suicide, considered it or even just wanting to die early to end the pain from the broken relationships.

There were plenty of discussions about how the change in law should focus on the right of the child to a relationship with his/her grandparent rather than a right of a grandparent (in line with how it is currently recorded for a parent).

The idea behind this is to avoid the argument that it is a demand by a grandparent or vexatious application as if the child does not want the relationship it would not be pursued.

This created a further debate in respect of instances of parental alienation where a child had been ‘brainwashed’ against a grandparent and whether the nominated Court social worker (CAFCASS) would be able to see through this and make positive recommendations.

Due to current understaffing and overworked officers, we heard of horror stories of rushed reports which sadly we see as children practitioners regularly.

The other worry we heard from the ministers was that there would be a sudden influx of applications that the court would not be able to manage.  There was, therefore, a practical suggestion of a specialist court to fast track these applications but sadly no answers to how this would be funded.

A lot of those present were part of support groups and found this extremely helpful. Other grandparents, who presently are unable to spend time with their grandchildren suggested sending cards/presents/text messages and keep a memory box in case they were not shown or rejected, keep special items with a personal note of what it means to you and even open an account for them for money for their future.

One lady spoke of being served with a harassment warning notice after sending just 3 letters and therefore I do add the warning to consider carefully if attempting this method of communication and if asked to stop to take legal advice.

We heard statistics that three-quarters of all parents responsible for cutting off grandparents from their grandchildren were daughters or daughters in law, that was shocking to me but with the explanation of maternal lines controlling the children, it seemed to explain this sad statistic.

So, what is the current law for grandparents?

Would you be surprised to hear that as a grandparent you have no automatic legal right to a relationship with your grandson or granddaughter?

Or that a child does not have an automatic right to a relationship with his/her grandparents or in fact any relative who does not have parental responsibility. (You can read about parental responsibility here.)

In my experience, most families can reach an agreement out of court to arrange times that grandparents can spend with their grandchildren but sadly there are some families that don’t.

If families cannot agree, grandparents could invite the parents to mediation to try and reach an amicable agreement. (You can read about mediation further here.)

How can the courts help?

If this is not successful then under the current law, the grandparents would need to ask for a ‘leave of the court’. This is the court’s permission for an application to spend time with the child.

Sounds straightforward? Well, for grandparents, there is an additional legal step that they need to take first.  They are required to complete an additional court fee and a possible court hearing to establish why they should have permission to see the child.

The court will consider:

  • The nature of the proposed application.
  • The applicant’s connection with the child.
  • Any risk of disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it.
  • When the child is being looked after by a local authority what the authority’s plans for the child’s future are, and the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents.

If permission is obtained, then the court will use the same factors to determine the grandparent’s application as they would with parents.

The overriding principle of this decision is the child’s welfare and grandparents need to satisfy the welfare checklist, as the parents would.  However, there is no presumption by the courts, as there is with parents, that there should be contact between a grandparent and child unless there is a good reason not to.

Caselaw has seen bitterness between grandparents and parents lead to a refusal of a contact application due to potential emotional harm and this covered indirect contact too.

Does the law need to change?  Absolutely. What next?

If you are a grandparent or a grandchild and you have been cut off from your grandparents or grandchildren firstly write or meet with your local MP, let them know how this is impacting you and let them know they can use your story, even if anonymous.

Secondly, seek legal advice although the path may not be easy, there is one there to take. Consider mediation or writing a letter whether this is from you or your solicitor before considering Court proceedings.

Finally, never give up! I have worked on cases where grandparents have reconnected with grandchildren and enjoyed happy relationships.  There is always hope.

Get in touch

If you are a grandparent and need advice on your right to see your grandchildren call our Client Care Team at the number below.

Sarah advises on all areas of family law (divorce/dissolution, cohabitation, domestic violence, children) and has worked with a broad spectrum of clients both nationally and internationally.

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  1. Julia Samuels says:

    We are having these difficulties & are maternal grandparents- not the result of divorce but mental health of my daughter & we believe coercive control of her boyfriend. The Children’s voices ignored entirely in court – we had a solicitor who got an agreement with our daughter – went into court incredibly hostile judges said to daughter ‘you know you don’t have to do any of this’ – so of course she then didn’t resulting in not allowing her children to see us. Went to District Judge ‘what do you want me to do about it?’ (Exact words). My daughter refused mediation at all junctures.
    The problem is in my experience of this is that there is no real system for keeping family relationships in tact when all else fails. When we used the only system available to us we were vilified for doing so by that very system. In our case we initially had cafcass who were favourable but as the LA were involved due to welfare issues it then went back to them for the main report. You can imagine how much effort went into resolving the issues. Zilch.
    Courts seem to be interested only in who the children are currently residing with – not the overall welfare of the child- I don’t cate what anyone says they aren’t interested in putting children 1st. That’s my experience anyway. Sorry it is negative but after the children lived with us independently of their mother, stayed with us weekly outside of that , saw us and our home as a refuge there is no way that removing that from them is in their best interest.
    I have seen in my own life – my son was estranged from his father (no one’s fault) at an early age – this early traumatic separation is thought to be the central most component of his long term and severe mental health problems. The damage done by sudden separations is traumatic and can have huge implications for the children’s future health.
    We tried the MP who wrote to the LA who sent him away with a flea in his ear. We are now with a curcuit judge but we have really lost faith in the court system – due to the fact that the court tends to follow the S7 even if it doesn’t make sense & in our experience tightly control questioning of it (the Social worker who wrote it wasn’t even in court!), our daughter had a pro bono barrister (we initially had a solicitor but due to mounting costs then employed a mckenzie friend) this barrister didn’t even want to talk to us let alone negotiate.
    I feel that although this meeting described in this article is a fantastic start there is much work to do. But I had no idea it was happening & would have been there if I did.

  2. Louise says:

    Our situation is very similar to the one above. However, an added element is that I believe our grandson is “at risk” and it is this that has caused our Mentally ill Daughter to break all contact, as she knows I am aware of a number of occasions when the little boy was life threateningly neglected. I haven’t yet forced the issue with CPS as I do not want to see him put in “care”, and I know if it came to it, our daughter is so spiteful she would rather he was in the hands of strangers than with us, of whom she is insanely jealous. The little boy himself is just two years old, and so could not express his wishes, nor would he realise how dangerous his parent’s behaviour is to him, particularly as he has a life/death condition that needs immediate treatment, and his Mother regularly refuses to seek appropriate treatment in good time, and he has suffered greatly as a consequence. He also has a Father that thinks it funny if he runs into 60mph traffic, as the Father is Aspergers. By my daughter calling the Police, I have been threatened not to contact them or anyone associated with them, nor approach the appropriate services. How can the Police do that, and why did they not interview me first before issuing a written warning? Finally, why did the Police not do their duty and start a Child Protection investigation, when it was clear from my daughter’s quoted statements that she had something to hide?
    We have no money for Lawyers, we lost everything when we moved to be near her to assist her. However, as soon as she realised I was becoming aware of the neglect, she told us to leave the area and cut off all contact. Subtle but continuous neglect and emotional abuse is such a hard thing to prove, especially with a 2 year old. if I contacted CPS again (as I did over a year ago and they did nothing), how would I persuade them that I am not just being “vindictive” and take me seriously this time?

  3. Andrew says:

    I have always believed that parents with care – usually mothers – are far too readily given permission to move their children in a way which will disrupt contact with the other parent, usually the father, in pursuit of their own plans for a career or a new relationship; I believe that parents of both genders are “indentured to sacrifice” and should expect to put such plans on hold until the children are older.

    But grandparents? No. Sorry. If the mother wants to move and that will end contact with them (or aunts, uncles, any other relations) she should be allowed to do so. I know others will differ.

  4. Helen Dudden says:

    There is another large issue that is not covered. International Child Abduction and the many failures. My grandchild was retained illegally in Spain. He began at around two years old to have an eating disorder. A few years later I was asked to go to him, problems had arisen and he had cried for me. Now 17 years old, I still couldn’t afford the legal action needed. Over £10, 000. All bonds broken with his family, and father in the UK.
    I was told by the FCO and Reunite being in the EUROPEAN Union gave us little protection. I had made comments to both the Brussels 11a and the Hague Convention of Judges.
    There is also the case of Beth Alexander and her twins in Vienna, our Government tried there too.
    This is a moral and Human Rights Issue. The cost paid by the children is high, self harm and low self esteem will be one of the life long cost that children pay.
    I also am aware of The Hendon Grandmothers and the continued efforts, this is a massive problem.

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