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Grandparents are to be given legal rights to maintain contact with their grandchildren after a family breakdown or divorce.A report will today set out radical proposals to enshrine in law greater access rights for grandparents when couples split, Whitehall sources revealed.
The review of the family justice system will also mean couples being pushed into mediation to sort out contact arrangements rather than resorting to the courts.
The report, by former civil servant and businessman David Norgrove, will herald the biggest shake-up in family law for decades.
Ministers say it is a scandal there is ‘little or no’ recognition of the vital role grandparents play in society.
Research suggests they are increasingly relied upon by parents for help with childcare and family finances, and by older children for advice and support that they may not get from their parents. But currently, they have no rights to maintain contact with grandchildren after a parental split.
Almost half face the heartbreak of being cut off completely and never see their grandchildren again after a break-up, with those whose sons are involved in a separation faring worst.
That means grandparents have to apply to the courts even to be given permission to make a request for some sort of contact, a lengthy and expensive process.
But today’s report will recommend enshrining in law greater rights to access when couples separate.
‘It will mean putting into law a recognition for grandparents and the important role they can play in supporting children who are involved in bitter custody disputes,’ said one source close to the reforms.
‘If they are denied access to their grandchildren who goes off with one parent, they should be able to appeal against that and take it to court.
‘It is a new legal right recognising that they should be able to maintain contact with their grandchildren.’
A new right for grandparents to apply for contact may raise concerns that access agreements will become over-complicated – for instance, if a mother has to agree to maintain contact with both an ex-husband and his parents.
But courts are expected to be allowed to continue to decide what is in a child’s best interests.
The plan will be welcomed by campaigners for grandparents’ rights, who have been arguing for years that their role in creating strong families should be better recognised.
The source said ministers would also consider giving grandparents greater custody rights if their grandchildren are being threatened by local councils with being fostered or taken into care.
City of Edinburgh Council acted despite the fact the grandparents had been caring for the boy and girl while their own daughter battled a heroin addiction.
The move sparked a backlash from the public, politicians and church leaders, who accused social work bosses of ‘politically correct’ posturing.
Grandparents provide over 40 per cent of childcare for parents who are at work or studying and over 70 per cent of childcare at other times. The contribution that grandparents make would cost parents an estimated £3.9billion a year.
And some 27 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 say they can share things with grandparents which they cannot talk to their parents about, rising to 35 per cent for their maternal grandmother.
Research also suggests a strong link between involvement of grandparents and wellbeing of children, teenagers in particular.
Today’s report is also expected to propose greater support for separating parents to enable them to manage conflict between themselves and to agree and maintain enduring contact arrangements.
This will require a significant shift away from adversarial court cases towards ‘non-legal interventions’ such as attendance at a Separated Parenting Information Programme – a course that helps separating parents understand what effect the process has on their children and how to proceed more effectively – or use of mediation.
The report is also expected to reject the idea of a new legal presumption of a child spending near equal amounts of time with each parent after separation.
A spokesman for single-parent charity Gingerbread said: ‘Our members tell us that court proceedings are long, difficult and expensive.
‘The majority of parents will do their best to avoid going to court but often struggle to know where to go for help and information about alternatives. This will require significant financial investment to ensure services are available throughout the country.’
The rights of grandchildren were not historically dealt with in law because divorce was relatively rare.
But the rise of family breakdown in recent decades means that access rights – for parents and grandparents – have become a pressing social issue.
It is thought that the rights for grandparents would apply both after a divorce – following marriage – and a separation where an unmarried couple have been co-habiting.