Children’s rights and restricted access to their Grandparents – a growing area of concern.
As a Children Law team at IBB solicitors we are seeing an increasing number of enquiries from Grandparents who have been restricted from seeing their Grandchildren, by one or both parents of the child. We have commissioned research into this trend with some surprising results, it reveals a breakdown in the extended UK family unit with more than a third of grandparents (34%) based in the North East and three in ten grandparents living in London admitting they have been restricted access to seeing their grandchildren. The UK average for restricted access was 15%. The research which was conducted by independent research agency Atomik Research in July 2019, surveyed 2002 grandparents across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Two thirds of respondents cited the reasons for restricted access as their sons, daughters and/or spouses were intentionally difficult. Nearly a quarter (22%) believed divorce/separation was a precipitating factor and a further 7% stated that they had been victims of grandparental alienation by their own daughters, sons and/or spouses. Although grandparental alienation is markedly higher in Yorkshire (18%), Northern Ireland (17%) and the South East (14%).
More than a fifth of all grandparents in the UK (21%) also admitted that restricted grandparent access has occurred amongst their friends or social circle. Again, the statistic was even higher in London (36%) and North East (26%). Nearly a quarter of all grandparents (23%) also admitted that on an ongoing basis they only see their grandchildren every few months, once or every other year or never at all
Nearly two thirds of UK grandparents (62%) are now calling for the UK Government to make changes to the current family law, which states that only people with parental responsibility, for example parents, step-parents or guardians, can make an automatic application for a Child Arrangements Order to gain access to seeing their children. Nearly a third (31%) believe a law should be passed in special cases where the parent’s mental or physical health is an issue and could pose a risk to the child/children.
When children suddenly find themselves distanced from Grandparents, unable to maintain those special bonds and relationships this can be devastating, and not only for the children. With more children born to parents who are not married and with the increase in matrimonial breakdown, sadly often the deterioration of relationships between the adults can mean that children also become distanced from their Grandparents.
Grandparents often feel that there is little that they can do if they are prevented from seeing their grandchildren. However, it is increasingly recognised that children need to have positive relationships with wider family members from both sides of their family, in order to maintain their emotional wellbeing and develop their identity. There may be good reasons why one parent is preventing the child from spending time with the other, perhaps a problem with drugs or alcohol or domestic abuse; but this should not mean that children loose contact with all members of that side of the family.
At IBB we believe that it is always best if adults can agree a way forward that is best for a child. This can be by exploring what concerns each person has and using our expertise to look for solutions that address those concerns. For example, reassuring the parent who cares for the children, that the Grandparent will always put the children’s welfare first, before any loyalties to adult offspring; and ensuring that agreements for Grandparents to spend time with children do not become ‘back door’ arrangements for the parent who is not permitted time with the children. Or if appropriate offering to supervise time between the children and non-resident parent, so that the first steps towards more normal family relationships can begin. Sometimes a referral to mediation can assist the adults to reach an agreement that takes into account any valid concerns and that works well for all concerned.
However sometimes the parent with whom the children live simply is not being reasonable and is actively seeking to distance the children not only from the non-resident parent, but from their wider family as well. This can take the form of preventing arrangements from being made for the children to see their relatives, talking negatively about the other parent and family to the children, or even fabricating welfare issues and involving professionals. This form of behaviour by care givers can be very damaging to children and lead to emotional difficulties in later life. In such cases it may be necessary to make an application to the Court and seek the involvement of the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) to resolve the issues.
Grandparents are not currently entitled to make an automatic application to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order setting out what time the children should be made available to spend time with them. However, an application for leave to apply for an Order can be sought, and the Court will consider the type of Order sought, the relationship with the child, and whether there is likely to be any harm or disruption to the child by allowing the application to be considered. Courts regularly recognise the enormous benefit to the welfare of the child that contact with their Grandparents can bring and strive to ensure that children remain connected with both sides of their family.
At IBB we advocate that there should be a change in the law to recognise the role that Grandparents can and should play in the lives of their Grandchildren. There are two significant changes to the Children Act 1989 that could be implemented to achieve this.
- To change section 10 (5) of the Children Act 1989 to name Grandparents of the children as within the class of persons who have an automatic right to apply for a child arrangements order for their grandchild. We believe this would remove the barrier of having to seek the leave of the Court before making such an application. In our view the application for leave can put off Grandparents from making an application as they have an additional hurdle to cross, and the impression given from the start is that their role in the child’s life is given less importance. We are not arguing that Grandparent’s substitute the role of the parent, but the current position does not reflect the unique role that a Grandparent can play in a child’s life.
- To extend Section 1 (2A) of the Children Act 1989 to read as follows:
a. “A court, in the circumstances in mentioned in subsection (4) (a) or (7), is as respects each parent within subsection (6) (a) to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that the involvement of that parent OR GRANDPARENT in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.”*
We would argue that changing the law to a presumption that a grandparent’s involvement in a child’s life (unless there are welfare reasons why they should not be) will improve the child’s wellbeing and life experience. We believe that this change will underpin what we now know to be good practice in the emotional development of children, namely that to form a positive sense of their identity that they need to know both sides of their family and where they ‘come from’.
* Note – section1 (6) (a) would also need to be amended to refer to a grandparent.
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