When Family Breakdown divides Grandchildren and Grandparents

On 12th February 2015 Simon Hughes, Minister of State for Justice answered a written question put by Steve McCabe MP asking;

“How many applications for Court orders there have been from Grandparents wishing to see Grandchildren after the divorce of the parents of those children in the last three years.”

The answers given confirmed that the number of applications was in the region of 2500 for each of the last three financial years. It was not possible to break this figure down into how many applications arose out of parental separation including divorce or family breakdown.
On reading this my response was to regard these figures as just the tip of the iceberg, representing only the small proportion of cases where family discord leading to the breakdown in contact between Grandparents and their Grandchildren had resulted in an application for contact. Statistics relating to the numbers of estranged grandparents and grandchildren are hard to identify. The Grandparents Association, a registered charity, puts the figures at 14 million grandparents in the UK and 1 million Grandchildren not having contact with their Grandparents, a shockingly high number.

As a solicitor specialising in the law relating to children, I have felt concerned when I have picked up on the helplessness often expressed by Grandparents who find themselves shut out of their Grandchildren’s lives. I have heard comments like “what can we do, grandparents have no rights over their Grandchildren?” Whilst Grandparents might not have the parental responsibility to make decisions for the children, they can be close and important relatives. They, like all EU citizens, have a fundamental right under the ECHR Article 8 to respect for private and family life and this family life can include relationships with Grandchildren.

The Children Act 1989 has at it’s core the principle of the child’s welfare being of paramount importance. Providing the contact with their Grandparent can be physically and emotionally safe and nurturing of the child, it is accepted that children benefit from being in touch with their Grandparents. This can improve their sense of personal identity, widen their support network, provide them with love and security, and enable them to broaden their sense of family and relationships over different generations. Given this I prefer to reverse the question and instead focus on “what rights does this particular child have to know his or her Grandparents?” I submit that the answer is that a child has the right to benefit from positive relationships with Grandparents as part of the child’s Article 8 right to respect for private and family life.

When coping with a relationship breakdown it can be difficult to keep the focus on the child. Harsh things can be said in the heat of the moment when emotions are raw and painful. It may not be possible for even the most sensitive, supportive Grandparents to bring about a situation where their Grandchildren are enabled to continue to have relationships with their Grandparents following a parental separation. Professional help can be needed to help find some middle ground, and to focus on the children’s needs. Mediation arranged by a trained mediator can help families with this and should be considered as a way to try and find a beneficial way forwards. Ashwin Topiwala, solicitor and trained mediator at this firm has experience of assisting Grandparents and their adult children to refocus on the children and find a way forwards.

If mediation is not successful an application to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order settling the contact arrangements between the child and Grandparent could be sought. This is a big step and I would suggest that time spent discussing this option with a specialist Children Panel , Family Panel or Resolution member Solicitor would be helpful, even if this was on the basis of a one off consultation at the outset, with a view to conducting the case without a solicitor (becoming a litigant in person). If you are a Grandparent in the unfortunate position of being cut off from your Grandchildren there will be many factors for you to consider when trying to work out what to do for the best. A solicitor can help set out the options and talk through the advantages and disadvantages of each. When making decisions that involve children it is important to consider not just the child as they are now, but as the adult they will become. Sometimes as a Grandparent it is better to take some action to preserve the Grandparent/ Grandchild relationship than to take no action at all.