According to a study by the U.K. charity Grandparents Plus, one in three families in the U.K. relies on grandparents to provide regular day care. Yet if the parent's relationship with the grandparents breaks down or there's a family crisis, grandparents discover they have no automatic legal right of contact with their grandchild. Contact can be suddenly withdrawn, and when their grandchild's future is being decided by parents or the authorities, there's no legal obligation to consider grandparents' views and wishes.
Divorce, Separation and Death
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Problems can arise for grandparents after divorce, separation or the death of one parent. The person with parental responsibility for the child, often the mother, can decide not to remain in contact with her parents-in-law, which often means the grandparents lose access to their grandchildren. The Grandparents' Association estimates that more than 1 million children in the U.K. are deprived of contact with their grandparents. Grandparents' charities suggest appealing to the parent with legal responsibility or taking part in a mediation process. In cases where this is unsuccessful, grandparents can appeal to the courts for a Contact Order, but this is often a long and expensive process with no guarantee that contact will be restored.
Applying for a Contact Order
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Grandparents can't directly make an application to the courts for a Contact Order but must first ask the court for permission to apply for one: Only parents, stepparents, guardians or a person that the child has lived with for at least three years can make a direct application. If permission is granted, the grandparents can then apply for a Contact Order. If either parent raises objections, the grandparents must attend a full hearing and will need expert legal representation. The Contact Order details whether the grandparents have been granted direct contact, such as visiting rights, or indirect contact, such as letters, e-mails and telephone calls.
When Parents Are Unable to Care for Children
If parents die or are unable to look after their own children for reasons such as mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction, grandparents have no automatic rights to be considered as legal guardians. In some cases, local authorities decide that children should be adopted or live with foster parents rather than with their grandparents. However, a grandparent can apply for a Residence Order, previously known as Custody, or a Special Guardianship Order if they're concerned about the welfare of a grandchild.
Applying for a Residence Order or a Special Guardianship Order
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To apply for a Residence Order, the grandchild must have been living with the grandparents for at least three years. If not, then the grandparents must ask for permission from the court to apply for a Residence Order. A Residence Order gives the grandparents parental responsibility until the child is 16. Although this parental responsibility is shared with the parents, the grandchild can continue to live with the grandparents, who will be responsible for major decisions about his upbringing, such as education and medical care. A Special Guardianship Order means that the court appoints one or more person to be the child's special guardian; the parents have less input with this type of order than with a Residence Order.