It is a sad fact that some grandparents have no contact with their grandchildren, and this can be a cause of great distress both to the grandparent and the grandchild. This can occur for a variety of reasons, though it is often as a result of family fall-outs following a divorce (a recent study published by Families Need Fathers, the Grandparents Association and the Family Matters Institute shows that 42% of grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren when their parents separate). Loss of contact may also occur where a death in the family has caused communication within the family to fail. It is important, particularly in unsettling situations like these, for healthy relationships between children and the adults in their lives to be maintained.
It is important for grandparents to be aware of the options available to them to re-establish contact with their grandchildren.
It is best to try to agree contact arrangements with the child’s parents, but obviously in some situations this is impossible or does not work. If informal discussions are not working, family mediation may be helpful as it can encourage the adults to focus on the child’s needs and put aside or deal with the issues which led to the loss of contact in the first place. Mediation is often a cheaper alternative to court action, but in some situations it might not be suitable. In those instances a grandparent can ask the court for permission to apply for a court order for contact with the child.
The role that a grandparent can play in a child’s life should be taken seriously. Contact with a grandparent is very important and so should be exercised where possible. The family courts recognise this, and it is why a grandparent may apply to the court for an order determining who the child should have contact with and any conditions that should be applied to that contact.
A grandparent wanting to apply for a court order for contact, (a “Child Arrangements Order”), must first attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (“MIAM”). These meetings are compulsory for the applicant and are intended to assess whether the case is suitable for mediation. The grandchild’s parents will be invited to also attend, (though they do not have to attend). If mediation fails, or if the case is deemed not suitable for mediation, the grandparent can ask the court for permission to apply for a Child Arrangements Order.
As a grandparent does not have any automatic parental responsibility for a grandchild, in most cases they must first apply to the court for permission to apply for a contact order. If the court grants this permission, the grandparent can then apply for a contact order. When deciding whether the grandparent’s application for permission should be granted, the court will consider the grandparent’s connection with their grandchild, and whether there is any risk that the application will disrupt the grandchild’s life in a way which might cause harm to the grandchild. Permission will be granted in a lot of cases, but, particularly in cases where both parents with parental responsibility object to permission being granted, the court might find it more difficult to grant permission to the grandparent. In these cases, whilst the court might not want to interfere with the parent’s wishes, they will consider the parents’ reasons for objecting to the grandparent’s contact and how this would impact on the grandchild.
Once permission has been granted, the grandparent can make an application for contact to the court. There is a fee for making such an application; currently £215. A date will be set for a court hearing of the application.
The paramount consideration for the court in any contact matter is the child’s welfare, and so they must decide if contact with the grandparent is in the grandchild’s best interests, and consider whether contact with the grandparent would give rise to any risk of harm to the grandchild.
The court has to do its upmost to resolve the case. Sometimes this may mean that the court will adjourn the first hearing to allow the parties to have another attempt at mediation. Often, having spent time in a courtroom in front of a judge, parents may be more receptive to hearing the grandparent’s views in a more informal forum than they were before. If the first hearing continues, and any discussions and negotiations at court are fruitless or do not fully resolve matters, the case will proceed to a further dispute resolution hearing.
In the lead up to the second hearing, the parties will have to comply with the directions the court ordered at the first hearing. For instance, these could include filing statements or obtaining reports from relevant bodies. The court must also provide a way for the grandchild to be involved and have their voice heard. Often a CAFCASS Officer (a person appointed by the court to reflect the child’s needs and wishes) will be asked to produce a report, but sometimes a letter to the court written by the grandchild to express their wishes will be a suitable way to involve the grandchild.
Since the court will be trying to achieve a solution which best serves the child in a conciliatory way, it will expect the other parties to do the same. Often this approach will result in an agreement being reached between the parties. However, if no agreement can be reached, the court can impose a Child Arrangements Order, setting out how contact is to work. If the order is not adhered to, it can be enforced under s.11 of the Children Act 1989, which allows the court to impose penalties on the party in breach of the order including unpaid work.
It can be an emotionally demanding experience for a grandparent to apply for a contact order, but with the right guidance, legal advice, and attitude, a good outcome can often be achieved. At Neves, we have vast experience of applying for contact orders, and adopt a pragmatic approach which does not ignore the emotion of the matter, but helps applicants avoid getting blinded by that emotion so that they can make well considered decisions.
If you would like to discuss applying for contact, or any other matter relating to family law, please do get in touch with our Family Department who will be happy to help: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Useful contact details:
|Coram Children's Legal Centre||
0300 330 5480
|Family Lives||0808 800 2222 (Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Weekends 10am-3pm)||www.familylives.org.uk|
|Grandparents Plus||0300 123 7015||www.grandparentsplus.org.uk|
|National Family Mediation Service||0300 4000 636||www.nfm.org.uk|
|Relate||0300 100 1234||www.relate.org.uk|
|Resolution||0207 320 5650 (Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm)||www.resolution.org.uk|
Note - All information correct at the time of initial publishing: November 2016.