Grandparents' rights to see grandchildren in the UK: navigating legal and family dynamics

Grandparents play a crucial role in the lives of their grandchildren, offering love, support, and a unique connection to family history. However, disputes or family breakdowns can sometimes lead to grandparents being denied access to their grandchildren. In the UK, grandparents do not inherently possess legal rights to see their grandchildren, but the law recognises the importance of maintaining family relationships.

Here, Lucinda Parker, Senior Solicitor in our Children Law team based at our Margate office, explores the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren and the legal avenues available to them.

Legal framework
Unlike parents, grandparents in the UK do not have automatic legal rights to see their grandchildren. Contact between grandparents and their grandchildren usually comes because of family relationships until such relationships break down leading often to a need for assistance from the Court. The court system acknowledges the significance of maintaining a child's relationship with extended family members, including grandparents and so when conflicts arise, the court's primary consideration is ‘what is in the best interests of the child/ren’.

In 1989, the Children Act was introduced, emphasising the importance of the child's welfare. Under this act, grandparents can apply to the court for permission to see their grandchildren if they are being denied access. The court will carefully assess each case and make decisions based on what it deems best for the child.

Factors considered by the court

  1. Child's best interests
    The court always prioritizes the best interests of the child. Factors such as the child's emotional and physical well-being, their wishes and feelings (depending on age and maturity), and the nature of the relationship with their grandparents are taken into account.
  2. Parental objections
    The court will consider the reasons behind the denial of access by the parents. If there are valid concerns about the grandparents' influence or behaviour, the court may restrict or deny access to ensure the child's safety but of course the Court does go to employ a investigatory process to determine the facts.
  3. Previous relationship
    The strength and quality of the pre-existing relationship between the grandparent and grandchild are significant factors. A well-established and positive relationship may weigh in favour of granting access.
  4. Frequency and duration of contact
    The court considers the proposed frequency and duration of contact between the grandparent and grandchild. It aims to strike a balance that supports the child's well-being and routine.

Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution
Before taking legal action, grandparents are encouraged to explore alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation. Mediation involves a neutral third party assisting in negotiations between family members to reach an agreement outside of court. This process can be more amicable and less adversarial than a court proceeding, potentially preserving family relationships but also offering the benefit of contact arrangements that extend beyond what the Court may order.

Applying for a Special Guardianship Order

Some situations do arise, where there is a need to secure more permanent grandparents’ custody rights, for example, by applying for a special guardianship order. These orders are used to grant the applicant increased parental responsibility and offer residence for the child, necessary in situations whereby the child’s own parents cannot currently see their children, or perhaps have limited access. Such cases often arise due to involvement from Social Services. This may occur if the parents have been deemed unfit to look after the children, whether due to child neglect, mental illness, substance abuse, or other issues but this isn’t always the case as there could be other situations such as abandonment etc.

Child Arrangements Orders for grandparents
A child arrangements order establishes where a child will live and who they will spend time with. They are often used during divorce proceedings or when a couple with children separate. Grandparents do not have the immediate legal right to apply and must first contact the court to gain permission to bring their application which can often be at the same time of the substantive application.

When considering this type of application from a grandparent, the court will reflect on various things, including:

  • The reasons that the grandparent has applied for the child arrangement order
  • How the application might disrupt the child’s life, and
  • The grandparent’s connection to their grandchildren.

Adopting your grandchildren
Under some circumstances, it may be necessary to adopt your grandchildren.  It is not the most attractive option to the Court but may be necessary in the right circumstances, usually where unfortunately the Parents have passed away.

Our advice
While grandparents in the UK do not possess inherent legal rights to see their grandchildren, the legal system recognises the importance of maintaining family connections for the well-being of the child. Grandparents who find themselves denied access have the option to apply to the court under the Children Act, where decisions are made based on the child's best interests. It's essential for grandparents to consider mediation and alternative dispute resolution methods before resorting to legal action, as fostering an amicable resolution is often in everyone's best interest, most importantly the child’s. Ultimately, the law seeks to strike a balance that prioritises the child's welfare whilst acknowledging the significance of extended family relationships.

We can assist you with specialist legal advice and guidance according to your individual circumstances. We will listen to you, advise you and guide you through the process. To get in touch with our family law specialists, call us on 01843 234000 or email our family team. Alternatively, you can look up all our family law specialists and choose who you would like to speak to or fill in our simple online enquiry form on this page to request a call back.

Frequently asked questions about grandparents’ rights

What rights do grandparents have in the UK?
Grandparents do not have the automatic right to see their grandchildren. Having said this, courts will generally grant grandparents access rights, unless doing so would not be in the child’s best interest

Can parents stop grandparents seeing their grandchildren?
Since grandparents’ rights are not automatically in place, a parent can stop grandparents from seeing their grandchildren. In this situation, grandparents can access legal assistance to guide them through the processes of obtaining visitation rights.

What to do when you aren’t allowed to see your grandchildren?
If you are not allowed to see your grandchild because one or both of their parents are restricting access, you’ll need to get in touch with a specialist family lawyer for advice.

Can a grandparent go for custody?
Yes, if parents are unable to look after their children, grandparents may seek to take the children into their care using a special guardianship order or child arrangements order (live with). Please note, the term ‘custody’ is no longer officially used.

Grandparents also have the option of adopting their grandchildren in the right circumstances.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.