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Planning Retirement Online

Grandparents do make a difference - 21

May 2011


Each month we bring you this special column on grandparenting written by our expert contributor Jeanne Davis.  

This month:- Grandparents losing contact with their grandchildren: help may be on the way..

If you have a subject you would like covered by Jeanne, please email us at: 



There is perhaps no greater joy than becoming a grandparent and no greater sadness than losing contact with a grandchild: an agony many grandparents go through when they cannot see their grandchildren because of family rifts following separation or divorce.

Parents tend to get bitter when a relationship breaks down. Depending on who has been awarded custody, the mother or father will refuse access not only to the spouse but to the paternal or maternal grandparent. Currently, grandparents have no automatic legal rights of contact with the grandchildren after a parental split. Almost half face the heartbreak of being cut off completely, with those whose sons are involved in a separation faring worse. Not surprisingly, maternal grandparents will have more contact. The daughters have custody, the sons less frequently.

The rights of grandchildren were not historically dealt with in law because divorce was relatively rare. But the rise of family breakdowns in recent decades means that access rights – for parents and grandparents – have become a pressing social issue. In 2009 nearly 114,000 divorces were registered in England and Wales.


The Family Justice Review panel has just published an interim report, which now goes out for consultation for three months. The expert panel, chaired by former civil servant David Norgrove, recommends simplifying the family courts. Proposals include faster settlements to minimise stress to children, the encouragement of mediation for separating parents and improved access for grandparents. For the first time, grandparents will be given legal rights to maintain contact. Implementation could follow before the end of the year.

Presently 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.
Ministers would also consider giving grandparents greater custody rights if their grandchildren are bring threatened by local councils with being fostered or taken into care.

Most encouraging is that the report, which centres on the child, recognises the importance of grandparents in children’s lives. Involvement of the grandparents in the children’s lives when parents separate helps cushion the impact of that separation or divorce on the children. Research shows that a majority of the grandchildren turn to grandparents for support, valued particularly as a source of time, attention and reassurance. Their homes are viewed as ‘safe’ or neutral territory in which to take refuge from what is happening at home. Moreover, children’s accounts of closeness to their grandparents were related to fewer adjustment problems and to their well being.

Not all grandparents are the warm and loving icons, idealised in stories and films. . Contact with an unloving or critical grandparent could be destructive. These situations must be considered in new laws to be written. As David Norgrove says emphatically, “Children are the most important people in the family justice system.”

Resources: For advice on staying in touch with grandchildren after divorce, contact the Grandparent’s Association helpline. 0845 4349585 (Monday-Friday, 10am to 4pm) or visit

You can view the report online on the Ministry of Justice's website under Family Justice Review.

When the Parents Separate by Jeanne Davis, Laterlife, October 2009

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