An old Chinese proverb states that “The elders are the precious gem in the centre of the household”. Is this still relevant in most modern households where generations of families are often living not just in different homes but in different towns and different areas of the country? The proverb, however, is closer to the truth than you may think. A recent study has shown that one in three working mothers rely upon grandparents for childcare and one in four of all working families. Grandparents’ childcare contribution has been estimated by Age Concern to be worth £3.9 billion each year. It therefore seems bizarre that, despite grandparents having a high involvement in the upbringing of their grandchildren, in the event of parental separation they have no automatic legal rights.
On 31st March 2011, former civil servant David Norgrove published an interim report of the Family Justice Review (FJR). This included consideration of the legal status of grandparents and how it might be legally reinforced. Research suggests that, after separation, 2.5 million grandparents don’t see their grandchildren more than once a month and half of grandparents lose touch with their grandchildren altogether. It seems a vital resource has been lost in supporting children through separation and divorce, when grandparents could provide the stability and continuity needed during a time of great uncertainty and upset.
The FJR recommends that the importance of grandparents should be reinforced by a ‘Parenting Agreement’. This is a voluntary document drawn up between the parents upon separation to help families focus on the children and the time that should be spent with important people in the children’s lives, including their grandparents. Such agreements would then be the foundation for future contact, and if this then breaks down they can be used as evidence in later Court Proceedings.
Whilst specifically raising the issue of time with grandparents, the proposals stop short of giving them an automatic right to make an application to the Court for an order to see their grandchildren. This still means that unless a voluntary agreement can be reached between the parents about grandparents’ involvement it can still be extremely expensive for grandparents to secure a Contact Order to see their grandchildren; if they are surviving on a pension the cost of taking Court Proceedings could be prohibitive. The proposals are still in consultation but they look likely to be approved. So what has changed? The answer is not a great deal. The government shift towards Family Mediation is a positive step, particularly with the emphasis on time being spent with the extended family, but it must be remembered that mediation is a voluntary process and if parents have entrenched views about grandparents’ contact, Court remains the last resort.
We know that the ongoing involvement of grandparents in children’s lives can help cushion the impact of divorce or separation and the proposals recommended in the FJR give greater recognition of this. Critics say that the recommendations have not gone far enough and the prerequisite for a grandparent to demonstrate a ‘genuine interest’ in the child’s welfare before permission to apply for a contact order is granted should be removed. However, the structure to enable a shift in the mindset of separating parents is in place and should be welcomed. The FJR will make its final recommendations in the autumn.
Carmelita Ardren is a partner, head of Raworths’ family law unit and a member of the Law Society Family Law Panel. To contact Raworths telephone 01423 566666 or visit our offices at Eton House, 89 Station Parade, Harrogate, HG1 1HF. Alternatively, you can email Carmelita on firstname.lastname@example.org.