Do grandparents have legal rights to see their grandchildren?
Grandparents do not have any automatic right to see their grandchildren, even if a parent is stopping them from seeing their grandchildren. They also do not have automatic parental responsibility and they cannot get parental responsibility by applying for a parental responsibility order as parents can.
What can grandparents do to continue contacting their grandchildren?
It is usually parents who have the legal right to decide who their children should see. It is, therefore, advisable for grandparents to try and stay on the best possible terms with the parents of their grandchildren.
Even if the parents cannot agree on child arrangements during divorce or separation, grandparents can and should try to make their own arrangements to see their grandchildren. An informal, family-based arrangement with both parents is often the best way for grandparents to continue contacting and seeing their grandchildren.
Alternatively, if an informal agreement cannot be reached, grandparents can try mediation. Here, an independent family mediator can help family members to all reach an agreement about child arrangements together. You can find a local mediator on the Family Mediation Council’s website.
Can grandparents apply to the courts to see their grandchildren?
Although grandparents do not have automatic rights to see their grandchildren, they can obtain legal rights to see their grandchildren from the courts. This takes the form of a child arrangements order. In a child arrangements order, the court will decide when and where the grandparents will have contact with their grandchildren.
If no agreement can be made between the grandparents and parents, the grandparents have the right to ask the family court for permission to see their grandchildren.
Mediation must at least be attempted before grandparents can apply to court. The mediator will provide a mediation certificate so that you can seek a child arrangements order from the court.
However, this is complicated because only those with parental responsibility (therefore generally not grandparents) can apply for a court order. Grandparents can only apply for permission to apply for a court order. However, the court will rarely refuse permission to make an application. Once a grandparent has made an application, the court will set a date for a hearing that everyone with parental responsibility will attend. A solicitor is not required and the grandparent can choose to go to court by themself.
In addition to or instead of a child arrangements order, grandparents can also apply for any of the following:
a special guardianship order - the court will appoint the grandparent to be the ‘special guardian’ of the grandchild until they turn 18
kinship foster care - if the grandparent wants to become an official kinship foster carer for a grandchild
an adoption order - this breaks the link between the grandchild and the birth parents. The grandparent legally becomes their grandchild’s parent
What happens when a grandparent applies to the courts?
At the hearing, the court will consider:
the relationship between the grandparents and the child
the nature of the application (eg the grandparents' reasons for applying to the court for an order)
whether contact with the grandparents would be harmful to the child in any way
whether continuing contact with the grandparents would harm the wider family
If, for example, you have had minimal contact with your grandchild up to this point, the court will be less likely to make an immediate order and instead may make a stepping-stone arrangement. A stepping-stone arrangement is intended to begin the proper integration of a child and a grandparent into each other’s lives.
Ultimately, the court will decide whether or not grandparents can spend time with the child. They will then consider what form of contact would be in the child’s best interests. The court order can decide:
where a child lives
who a child spends time with and when
what type of communication should take place between the child and the grandparent (eg face-to-face or over the phone)
The court must only make an order where they believe this will be better for the child than making no order at all.
It is important to bear in mind that, in general, going to a family court should always be a last resort due to the cost of solicitors’ fees and the emotional strain the process can impose.
If the parents raise any objections to the application, all parties will have to attend a full hearing and provide evidence. It will be up to the grandparent to prove that the child’s life will benefit from contact with the grandparent.
What if parents don’t follow a court order?
If the parents ignore a court order, grandparents can go back to court to explain how parents have breached the order. The family court will then enforce the order. The court might also punish the parents for breaching the order.
In which other ways can grandparents become responsible for a child’s care?
Because grandparents are classed as close relatives they can be appointed as ‘testamentary guardians’. This means that they are appointed to be the guardian of their grandchild in the event of the parents’ or existing guardians’ deaths. Upon the parents’ or guardians’ deaths, if the grandparent has been properly appointed, they will obtain parental responsibility and receive all the responsibilities, rights, and duties of a parent concerning the child.
For more information, read Appointing a guardian.
Becoming a kinship carer
Grandparents fall into the category of ‘connected persons’, they are eligible to become kinship carers (ie ‘Family or Friends carers’) for their grandchildren. This is an arrangement where a child who can’t be looked after by their parents (or any other person with parental responsibility) goes to live with another connected person, either full-time or for most of the time.
Grandparents are the most common kinship carers. This can either come about through a private arrangement between the parent and the connected person or through the involvement of Child Services. Either way, becoming a kinship carer will involve an assessment and a fostering panel will decide whether or not to approve the grandparent. It is important to note that kinship carers do not get parental responsibility for the child and, therefore, cannot make some key decisions on the grandchild’s behalf.
What if one of the child’s parents doesn’t have parental responsibility?
If you are a grandparent and your child (eg your son) is the parent but they are not on your grandchild’s birth certificate, the processes above may be more difficult as your son may not have parental responsibility. Ask a Lawyer if you need assistance in this situation.