With much focus, as is the recurring theme at election time, being placed by UK political parties on the classic issues of the NHS, education, austerity, taxation and so on, it is easy for the average voter to lose sight of some other issues that can be important at election time. To take one such example, the political pledges and positions taken in respect of grandparents’ rights. The average voter, much like the average family lawyer, may be generally aware of certain family-law-related issues creeping into the mainstream parties’ manifestos, for example in relation to child benefit, free childcare provision and maternity/paternity rights and pay; however, at a glance there is also some reference to be found in connection with the vital role that grandparents play in some families and how that role is unrecognised by the law as it presently stands.
Back in 2010, politicians commented upon the “raw deal” that grandparents – oft akin to free childcare providers in some family dynamics – were receiving in respect of financial support, paid leave and flexible working hours; that is to say, the lack of any deal that they were entitled to as a right. Their love and willingness to provide care was all that mattered and this did not seem quite right in the political sphere at that time. Consequently, the Grandparents (Access Rights) Bill 2010-2012 received its first reading but did not survive to ultimately make it through as legislation.
Nothing has changed since that time although various children and grandparent charities have seemingly taken it upon themselves to grow public awareness of the generally perceived unfairness that grandparents (or any other non-parent family member for that matter) face in the context of the breaks given to them in contrast with parental rights.
The legal passage for grandparents seeking to have their care for their grandchildren, or access to them, recognised is presently hugely restrictive and generally an afterthought in relation to court cases particularly in the sphere of public law care cases and adoption. There is little understanding or awareness of special guardianship outside of the knowledge banks of some family lawyers and Local Authorities. Even then, the criteria for making a special guardianship application can sometimes be prohibitive. It is therefore quite a slog for many grandparents to seek the formalising of their rights as primary or full time carers (or as abandoned grandparents suffering from the fact of the separation of their grandchild’s parents) and there are many hoops to run through in successfully securing those rights. Those rights, as in any Children Act case, must be balanced against the best interests of the child in line with the overriding welfare principle. Grandparents or other relatives can be considered in cases in which they have joined or intervened in as an alternative for example to adoption or permanent/ongoing foster care. That very comparison can be frustrating, expensive and time consuming for the average significant care providing grandparent who may not fully appreciate why there is any debate at all over whether their grandchild should be cared by them, continue to be cared by them or removed from their family entirely.
Political parties seem to recognise in their campaigns and pledges, albeit vaguely or indirectly most of the time, that many families will break up through separating parents. How far they acknowledge and recognise in their electoral promises that such break up can cause the further spiralling break up of relationships between children and their families is not so clear, yet it is to many families a very important consideration; it is their life after all and whilst governments and politicians will come and go, their children and their grandchildren will stay forever. The proverb ‘you can choose your friends (or your government) but not your family’ springs to mind here. Clearly, family rights are a live and ongoing societal issue. Even if grandparents’ rights are promoted through further attempts to legislate for those rights in the future, much will depend on the make up of the next government and also whether certain manifesto pledges are made good once the next government is formed.
In the short term, nothing will change but in the longer term, as awareness grows on the issue of childcare, grandparents may well have their voices heard more loudly with the result being that more voters may one day decide that childcare and general family or grandparent rights are an issue which affects their lives in such a way as to influence their voting preferences.
If you have been affected by the issue raised, please contact me.