UK Family Law Reform

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DRIVEN APART BY RELATIVES' ROWS

22nd September 2006

Across the country, more than a million people are locked out of their grandchildren's lives. on the eve of grandparents day, adam wakelin finds out what steps you can take to rebuild that vital bond

It's easy to be cynical about National Grandparents Day, to shake your head and mutter that it's just a marketing ploy by the likes of Hallmark to flog greetings cards. But tomorrow, for all its rampant commercialism and gushing sentimentality, will matter - one way or the other.

For thousands of nanas and grandads across Leicestershire, those cards will be cherished gestures of thanks for the all the love and the time they have lavished on their grandkids over the past year.

For thousands more, it will be a crushing reminder of everything they have lost.

Fathers 4 Justice may make more noise, but for every dispossessed dad there is often at least one grandma or grandad suffering in silence.

Support organisation the Grandparents' Association takes 120 calls a month from people who have been locked out of their grandchildren's lives as a result of divorce, separation or family feuds.

It estimates that more than one million grandparents across the country never get to see their grandchildren. If you are in that situation, things can seem unremittingly bleak.

But there is hope, says Bina Modi, a family lawyer at Smith Partnership Solicitors, in Leicester. This forgotten branch of the family tree is increasingly being recognised by the courts and grandparents are not without legal rights.

The Smith Partnership is a member of the Grandparents' Association and Bina is chair of Leicestershire Resolution, which promotes a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters.

Here, Bina answers some of the questions asked by grandparents who are at risk or have lost touch with their grandchildren.

Q Can my child stop me from seeing my grandchildren?

AIn a practical sense, parents can stop contact by not allowing them to visit. Therefore, grandparents have no automatic right to contact. However, the courts recognise that grandparents have an important role to play in children's lives and will always act in the best interests of those children.

If grandparents are being threatened with loss of contact due to, say, divorce or separation, they can apply to the court for contact. If the court finds contact is in the child's best interests, they can take the decision away from parents and make a formal Contact Order.

QThere has been a feud and we are not speaking to our children but want to see the grandchildren. What can we do?

AAs family lawyers, we would recommend a three-tier approach.

If matters have gone beyond being able to be sorted within the family, we would send a formal solicitor's letter requesting contact.

The next stage would be to try to bring both parties together with a trained mediator to come to an agreement.

The final route would be to make a formal application for contact through the courts.

The courts would look more favourably if the other routes had been tried and exhausted first.

QWill the children have to testify in court?

ANo. The courts and, hopefully, the family would all agree that this would be extremely traumatic for any child.

The courts appoint a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) officer to meet everyone involved and report back before a decision is made.

QHow will the court decide whether to grant a Contact Order?

AThe biggest consideration is the welfare of the child. This is considered in a precise way by applying a welfare check list, that the Cafcass officer and the judge have to consider in light of the circumstances in each case.

It may be that if contact is not desirable or possible, an Indirect Contact Order is made whereby the grandparents can send letters, cards and video tapes to their grandchildren. Although this may not be the ideal solution in grandparents' eyes, it would at least keep them in the children's lives.

QI want my grandchild to live with me. Is that possible?

AWith permission from the court, a grandparent can apply for a Residence Order. The court would have to consider all the circumstances of the case, again by applying the welfare check list.

A court may decide that it is in the best interests of the child to live with their grandparents. However, this does not take away the parents' rights.

For further information, call Smith Partnership on 0116 247 2000 or the Grandparents' Association on 01279 444964.

grandparents-association.org.uk

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