It is estimated that 1/3rd of adults aged over 50 are grandparents and there are 14 million grandparents in the UK.
The relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is special and in the vast majority of cases extremely rewarding. Most of us will have fond memories of spending time with our grandparents and being spoiled with treats that would otherwise be denied us by our parents!
Sometimes the grandparent, who is often one step removed from the immediate family, can provide a listening ear and support to their grandchild over issues they would rather not discuss with their parents, or indeed offer guidance to a parent over a tricky situation with their grandchild. Around 2/3rds of grandparents help with the care of their grandchildren and many provide financial assistance to the family.
However, current estimates are that around a million children are denied a relationship with their grandparents. This may be as a result of the separation of their parents, with one parent accusing the grandparent of interfering, criticising or taking sides.
For the grandchildren, the loss of contact with their beloved grandparent can be extremely painful, especially if their parents have separated. Younger children may believe they have done something wrong that has led to the break-up of their family and may struggle with the resulting changes in their lives. Often they will not understand why they can no longer spend time with Nanny and Grandad or why Grandad cannot watch them play football or they cannot bake cakes with Nanny.
Being “frozen out” of their grandchild’s life can be devastating to grandparents and some have described their feelings as akin to bereavement over the loss of contact with their grandchild.
The one thing the parents and grandparents have in common is their love for the children and whilst it is often very difficult not to take sides or express an opinion, it is important to maintain neutrality and attempt to resolve the situation amicably for the benefit of the children. Grandparents may be able to provide some respite for the grandchildren, away from the tension and stress within the family home whilst their parents work out their own arrangements.
Parliament has been asked on a number of occasions to review and amend the law which requires grandparents to seek the Court’s permission before they can pursue an application and whilst this was debated in May 2018, changes have yet to be made. Sadly therefore, grandparents do not have an automatic right to see their grandchildren and if an agreement cannot be reached with the parent, they may be in the unenviable position of having to consider an application to Court for permission to pursue an application for an Order that provides for the grandchildren to spend time or otherwise have contact with them.
Court proceedings are lengthy, arduous and often extremely expensive. Legal Aid is no longer available for these types of cases and grandparents may struggle to meet the costs of representation on their limited pension income. The mere threat or suggestion that an application will be made to Court is likely to further widen the canyon that exists between grandparent and reluctant parent and litigation will do little to restore relations even if an Order is made. This will clearly have an impact on the child and that cannot be overlooked or underestimated.
Applications to Court therefore, must be considered only as a last resort. Grandparents and indeed parents must do all they can to resolve the dispute through negotiation by opening up the channels of communication. If the adults are unable to resolve their differences through direct communication themselves, then consideration should be given to other means of alternative dispute resolution.
Mediation services can assist the adults in airing their differences in a safe environment, enabling the issues to be identified and discussions to then take place with a view to achieving a resolution for the benefit of the whole family. Where older children are involved, specially qualified mediators can even include the grandchildren in the mediation process, enabling them to have their say as to what they would wish to happen. Family therapy or counselling services may also provide some assistance in resolving the issues that have led to the breakdown of the relationship between the adults.
Ultimately however, if an agreement cannot be reached, consideration may need to be given to an application to Court for a Child Arrangements Order determining when the child is to spend time with the grandparents.
Trethowans’ team of family solicitors are able to provide advice and assistance to the grandparents and parents as to the arrangements for the children and also have the benefit of experienced mediators and collaboratively trained lawyers who can assist in resolving disputes without involving the Courts. Contact Dawn Gore, winner of the Best Family Law Paralegal Award 2019, for expert legal advice on 01722 426945.