Grandparents could get an effective legal right to see their grandchildren after divorce, under proposals to be examined by ministers, The Telegraph can disclose.
Lucy Frazer QC, a Justice minister, said she would consider a change in the law to establish a “presumption” that grandparents can see their grandchildren after parents split up.
The proposed change would require judges to put greater weight on attempts by grandparents, uncles and aunts, to win access to their grandchildren, nephews and nieces.
MPs from all parties are backing an amendment to the Children’s Act 1989 to enshrine in law the child’s right to have a relationship with their grandparents and other close members of the extended family.
They are complaining that some “alienated” grandparents are being investigated by the police for harassment for sending birthday cards to their grandchildren.
Dame Esther Rantzen, the BBC presenter and a campaigner for grandparents’ rights, said any new legal right would be “wonderful news for grandchildren”.
She said: “It is a relationship that matters so much and I have heard tragic stories of grandparents forced to try to prove there is a relationship. The law needs to recognise this relationship which means so much.
“The French have got it right – they give children the legal right of access to their extended family, particularly grandparents, and they have got it the right way round. They must [deal with this].”
Lucy Peake, chief executive of charity Grandparents Plus, added: “Too many grandparents are cut out of their grandchildren’s lives when parents separate. Research suggests that an ongoing close relationship with grandparents is positive for children at this time.
Currently grandparents face a two stage process, first applying to court for the right to apply for access, and then going through the formal process of applying for “child arrangement orders”.
Ministry of Justice figures show that 2,000 grandparents applied for so-called “child arrangement orders” in 2016 – up 25 per cent in just a year. The process can cost thousands of pounds in legal fees and take years.
Tim Loughton MP, a Conservative former Children’s minister, pointed out during a Commons debate that there was a “supposition that the parents should both be as involved as possible in their children’s upbringing”.
He asked if “it would be equally appropriate to have a presumption that grandparents should be involved as much as possible in the upbringing of those children, unless — and only unless — there is a problem with the welfare of that child?”
Tory MP Nigel Huddleston said “a number of grandparents” were “being visited by the police and accused of harassment” for trying to “send birthday cards or Christmas gifts to their grandchildren”.
One grandson who was denied contact with his grandparents from the age of 10 had told him how as a child he had felt “a sense of deep loss, guilt and regret”.
Mr Huddleston said: “I have heard horrendous stories about children being put up for adoption despite the grandparents wanting to care for them.
“They cannot, however, afford the legal costs to pursue the issue through the courts, which I will come on to in a minute.
“There are cases where grandparents are denied access to their grandchildren for perfectly legitimate reasons and in the best interests of the child.”
Campaigner Jane Jackson – who is seeing her teenage granddaughter for the first time in 10 years this Bank Holiday weekend – said that not seeing her grandchild after her son’s divorce was like a “living bereavement”.
Ms Jackson said: “You go through the stages of grief as you do when you actually lose someone, except you are grieving for someone who is still alive.
“Not being able to tell her how much she was loved was beyond words. I just had a constant knot in my stomach, a huge void. She was my first grandchild, my first granddaughter, and she always will be.
“She is the person I first think of in the morning and last thing at night. Does she think we don’t love her anymore?”
Ms Frazer said she would “look” at whether there needs to be “a change in the law in relation to presumption” to see if grandparents needed right.
Ms Frazer said reforms were needed as long as there were no unintended consequences: “It is clear that the system could work better and I am keen to look into how we can improve it.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman added: “We will consider any proposals for helping children maintain involvement with grandparents, together with other potential reforms to the family justice system which are currently being looking at.”
Last November in the House of Commons, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, said that her ministers would consider the issue of a legal right for grandparents “carefully”.
She said: “Grandparents do play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren. We can all, I am sure, sympathise with those who experience the anguish of being prevented from seeing their grandchildren if a parental relationship ends.
“Of course, when making decisions about a child’s future, the first consideration must be their welfare, but the law already allows family courts to order that a child should spend time with their grandparents.”
Case study: ‘We will miss out on having grandchildren to spoil and cherish’
Being forced to get on with daily life whilst being denied all access to your longed-for grandchildren would be barely conceivable for most grandparents.
But when faced with the threat of the police knocking on your door if you so much pass on an address for a relative to send a birthday card, it is not hard to imagine being plunged “to the very blackest place on Earth.”
This has become the daily reality for one middle-aged couple, who are by no means alone in being cut out of their grandchildren’s lives. They have never met their youngest granddaughter, who is now three, and have not seen her elder sister since she was a toddler.
Their son, the girls’ father, is separated from their mother and has been warned that if he has any access at all with his family, he will be denied all access to his daughters.
His parents accept that faced with that ultimatum, however awful, “there really is only one choice.” The couple, who run their own business, try to remain positive about the situation and are hopeful that at some point in the future, something will change.
But they are also realistic, as the grandfather told the Telegraph: “We would love to have grandchildren to spoil and to cherish. “We are well aware thought, that as time goes on, we get so much older and will have missed out.”
He cautiously welcomed proposals put forward by Lucy Frazer, a Justice minister, which could prompt a change in the law to give grandparents a legal right to have access to their grandchildren.
“And no one else has the right to hold that back from them.” He said that both of his sons had enjoyed a “very normal” and happy family upbringing but that everything changed when his elder son met his former partner.
“It’s ruined our family life,” he said. “She’s incredibly controlling but there is very little we can do. “We have been to the blackest places on Earth. My wife has been depressed and on medication. He was very close to his mum.
“You settle into living bereavement.” The grandfather, who clearly has nothing but love for his son and grandsons, said things had changed when his son and the woman separated.
He came to live with his parents for a while but when they temporarily got back together he was essentially banned from having any further contact with them, an arrangement that has continued even after they split.
“I had passed their address to a relative so she could send a Christmas card and somehow things got out of hand and my daughter-in-law reported us.
“It was all cleared up very quickly when we explained the situation and was filed as a malicious complaint but the terrifying thing is that people can say what they like and you will still be investigated.
“We live with the threat of the police being called if we so much as even acknowledge our granddaughters’ existence.”
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