With so much financial pressure on parents of children and the fact that in the UK, we pay more for our childcare as a proportion of income than anywhere else in the world, never have extended family been a more important part of raising our young. Grandparents and grandchildren can have exceptionally strong bonds and a very different enriching relationship with each other.
In circumstances where parents are separating, one reoccurring question arises: what do grandparents do when they want to enjoy the same quality of time with their grandchildren and they experience resistance from one or both parents?
It is tempting for many people to reach first for the obvious answer – that this is something which can be resolved efficiently by a court. However, particularly within the last five years, a number of disadvantages have become apparent as the way these matters are handled within the legal system has changed:
- Simple contact matters are commonly dealt with by Magistrates who have no specific legal training. Allied with this, it can be difficult to request a transfer of a case to a Judge. Often cases before Magistrates are not handled efficiently;
- In some areas of the country at present, hearings can be removed from the diary up until the day of the hearing. This can cause a lot of stress and wasted costs. It is predominantly because there aren’t enough Judges of Magistrates to hear matters;
- Cases are taking longer and longer to get to hearings and it is harder to process paperwork for cases or track progress as the Ministry of Justice seek to save costs in a variety of ways.
Added with this, going to court to try to discuss contact matters in any circumstances can be an experience where it is common for all parties to feel like their relationship is worse after proceedings than before it. This is largely because the court system by nature pits one party against the other. Parents and grandparents are left free, or even encouraged to raise allegations and air their grievances which can be difficult to heal when the court building is firmly in the rear-view mirror.
The problems which have arisen within any family dynamic preventing grandparent contact will be unique. As a result, it is worth thinking first about whether anyone trusted by parents and grandparents alike could help ‘mediate’ a solution, either professionally or more informally. Hopefully, attitudes will not have hardened to make this impossible or too tense an experience to contemplate. If there is only one resistant parent, contact can be managed with the grandparents having contact whilst their own child does, although this isn’t ideal.
If there is no alternative, normally when both parents resist contact, grandparents can issue proceedings at court. It is worth remembering before embarking on this that grandparents do not have a right to see a grandchild. Therefore, unless court pressure or negotiation can shift attitudes, a court can’t force a parent to make a child available to spend time with a grandparent.
Furthermore, in order for an application for contact to succeed to a full hearing, grandparents will need to apply to a Judge for permission to issue an application. At a preliminary hearing, in order to accede to such a request, the court will have to consider:
- The grandparents’ relationship with the grandchild
- The nature of the application
- If contact with the grandparents would be harmful in any way to the child
- If continuing the contact with the grandparents would impact negatively on the rest of the family.
It takes extensive practical as well as legal experience to advise comprehensively in these circumstances because the important issues are not wholly legal. Grandparents may ask themselves (as parents do before issuing contact cases in court) ‘Do I risk making my relationship worse with my family in applying to court?’, and ‘Are the dynamics of our family such that more informal ways of discussing things are more likely to work’.
Court proceedings can lead to lasting compromise if the parties are willing and evidence is obtained and presented with the best interests of the child or children involved. The best way to do this is to employ the considerable skill of an expert, to avoid the bear traps along the way.