Will MP’s Secure More Rights for Grandparents?
Currently, under the Children Act 1989, only those with parental responsibility have an automatic right to apply for a contact order. Grandparents do not have parental responsibility and instead need to seek permission from the court to apply for contact first. Although the court is likely to award access should the court believe that contact with grandparents will benefit the child’s upbringing, many grandparents claim that they are prevented from seeing their grandchildren, especially after divorce when emotions have been running high.
This view is agreed by MP’s, who recently debated in Parliament whether to provide grandparents with equal parental rights and to amend the Children Act 1989 as the current law fails to recognise the large part grandparents play in a child’s upbringing.
Under section 8 of the Children Act 1989, where grandparents have attempted to mediate with the parents and this has not proved successful, this leaves them with the only available option to seek permission to apply for contact from the Court.
When deciding whether to grant permission, the court will consider, amongst other things, the connection that the grandparents have with the child, the nature of the application for contact and whether the application might be potentially harmful to the child’s well-being.
It is argued that, although grandparents do need to seek leave to apply, such leave is rarely refused by the Court unless there is evidence of abuse. Then, if the grandparent applicant is successful, it is open for them to seek whatever contact they feel is appropriate for the child.
The court will then consider all the child’s circumstances and must only make an order where they consider that it is better for the child than making no order at all. In dealing with this, the Court will have to weigh up whether the grandparent’s continuing contact with the child might have a negative impact on the rest of the family relationships. However, it is only in extreme cases that the court will refuse contact.
MP’s across all parties recognise that, although the seeking of permission by grandparents may, in the majority of cases, just be a technical point, the fact that such permission is required in the first place can act as a hurdle to access, as some grandparents may be deterred from applying to court due to this.
This view is echoed by Grandparents Plus, who argue that the requirement for permission should be removed as the law does not reflect the influence grandparents are likely to play in a child’s upbringing. Close family relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are increasingly common as the cost of childcare pushes parents to rely on informal care from family members. As such, this is creating a closer bond between the grandparents and children.
This view has also been supported by Age UK (2017), who have found that approximately 5 million of the UK’s grandparents provide regular childcare for their grandchildren aged under 16 and 38% of that figure look after the children 2 – 3 times a week. In light of this, it is said that the current law surrounding children does not reflect the influence that most grandparents have in a child’s life.
As such, only time will tell if the law is changed to provide grandparents with an automatic right to apply for contact with a child. However, at this stage although the requirement to seek permission to apply for contact may act as an initial deterrent to seeking contact with a grandchild, it is important to note that the law still allows for grandparents to seek contact with their grandchild via a Court application if no alternative agreement can be reached between themselves and the child’s parents.