What are grandparents' rights to see their grandchildren?

If a family breaks down, it can mean grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren so it's important to understand grandparents' rights to see grandchildren.

Many people have fond memories of spending time with grandparents and the special relationship that entails. As grandparents are often retired, they tend to have the time available to support parents with everyday activities such as the school run, provide after-school care, or a taxi service to activities, as well as host a variety of days out and school holiday fun.

However, when a parental relationship breaks down not only do the effects impact the immediate family but also the extended family, most commonly grandparents. Grandparents not only grieve the loss of the relationship with their grandchildren but depending on the circumstances, may also have concerns about the safeguarding of their grandchildren.

In what circumstances might grandparents need to know their rights?

Unfortunately, the recent periods of repeated pandemic-related lockdowns have put additional pressure on relationships between couples themselves and made it difficult for normal grandparent-grandchild relations to continue. Whilst most family units will recover and intergenerational contact will resume, for others, the pressure on relationships has been too great and the subsequent rise in divorce rates is well documented, meaning there may be increased numbers of grandparents needing to know their rights.

Parental divorce and failed relationships are in fact the most common reason for grandparents investigating their rights to see their grandchildren. Of course, divorce is not at all unusual but it does present some challenges for grandparents in terms of maintaining contact with grandchildren. Even when a divorce is reasonably amicable, issues such as relocation and new relationships can create strain and tension between parents and grandparents. 

Similarly, mental health problems, domestic abuse, and alcohol and drug dependency all affect families and can hugely impact grandparent-grandchild relationships. These issues have also increased during the pandemic and can cause parental relationships to break down as well as lead to strain on intergenerational relationships.

Grandparents play a pivotal role for grandchildren during divorce   

When a parent leaves the family home, more often than not, they end up at the grandparent’s house, possibly with their children. Grandparents often provide practical, emotional and financial support to their grown-up child and may play a pivotal role in bringing up grandchildren - whether as a stop-gap or a longer-term solution.

If there are more serious issues such as alcohol and drug dependency, it is often the grandparents who step in and give the grandchildren the security and stability they need in the grandparent’s own home. Often in these situations, the grandparents informally take on full responsibility for the children if the parent is unwilling or unable to do so.

An alternative scenario is that when tensions arise, the opposite happens and grandparents can be denied access to their grandchildren altogether. While some may see the contact with grandchildren dwindle over time, many are suddenly refused contact, often for no good reason, despite having provided many years of support.

What are the legal rights of grandparents?

Although it may only be the father or mother of a child that has automatic rights in respect of children, in Scotland, the grandparents can obtain these rights, by a simple application to the Sheriff court nearest to where the child or children live. (In the case of the legal system in England and Wales, a similar contact order application can be made to the courts.) 

A court will support and provide the necessary framework for grandparents to step into this role, giving them the necessary rights and responsibilities, when the parents are having difficulties and may no longer be able. 

The court will recognise that in these situations the grandparents can take over the parenting and therefore put the necessary orders in place to ensure the welfare of the children is protected and maximised.

However, even when grandparents are not looking to step into a full parenting role for their grandchildren, they may believe that it is in the best interests of their grandchildren for contact to be maintained. Courts will review this application in a similar vein and put the welfare of the children front and centre.

Whether you are a grandparent who has played an integral part in your grandchildren’s life and this is now being refused, or if you are a grandparent who is now having to care for their grandchildren full-time and you want this to continue, you will find that your situation is likely to be looked on favourably by a court of law.

Gaining contact with grandchildren is not as complicated, costly or time-consuming as many grandparents might think. 

See our related blog posts which explain the legal framework when applying for a contact or residence order for grandchildren and a FREE checklist to help grandparents compile evidence in their favour.

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