Operations of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Grandparents' Association (FC 55)


The Grandparents' Association is a national charity that has been in existence since 1987. It is the only organisation that supports grandparents who have issues relating to both private and public law and in residence and contact issues as well as supporting those with childcare responsibilities. The organisation is unique in providing information, support and direct services to grandparents and other extended family members. Annually it receives 8,000 calls to the helpline and 1 million hits on the website. The largest number of referrals is from the Citizen's Advice Bureau averaging some 170 per month. There is a membership in the region of 1,000 as well as members from local authorities and family lawyers.

The charity provides the Ask an Expert service on the government funded BeGrand website, writes the issue based articles and runs the community area. It is from this background that the organisation feels able to give evidence to the Committee. The organisation is a lead player in the Kinship Care Alliance and founded and chairs the Alliance on Family Contact. It is also a member of the Professional and Parenting Group Alliance and Kids in the Middle coalition.

We have expert legal advice amongst our trustees with a recently retired family court magistrate and a previous Official Solicitor to advise as well as a serving manager of a local authority children's services. The organisation also works well with CAFACSS in areas where we have services and this has helped the extended family in crisis.


There are very few statistics available but it is estimated that 250,000 to 300,000 children are living in family and friends (kinship care) placements with less than 7,000 being cared for with the support of the local authority in such placements.

It is estimated that 1 million children are denied contact with their grandparents and their wider family.

Grandparents provide up to £4 billion worth of childcare annually.

There has developed a somewhat urban myth that grandparents only go to court because they are unable to see their grandchildren because of divorce or separation and that these are usually the paternal grandparents. This is not always so and other circumstances should be considered during any review. The Grandparents' Association (GPA) recently commissioned Prof Bob Broad to look at the issues facing grandparents facing a number of issues, including contact. His report, Grandparents' Voices, showed:

—  54% of the grandparents denied contact are maternal.

—  46% of the grandparents denied contact are paternal.

—  39% reported that indirect contact had also been stopped.

—  55% reported family feud as the main reason contact had ceased.

—  17% reported separation as the main reason that contact had ceased.

—  13% reported divorce of birth parents as the main reason that contact had ceased.

—  40% quoted that they had a difficult relationship with their daughter in law.

—  34% quoted that the difficult relationship was with their own child.

—  16% quoted that the difficult relationship was with their son in law.

—  The helpline has reported a significant rise in the numbers of grandparents denied contact following the death of their own child.

The report goes on to show that preventative work, specialist grandparent helplines and fact sheets and peer support has been a positive way of ensuring that less than half decide to go to court although 10% of respondents reported that they had a court order but they were still having no contact.

The GPA also supports those grandparents going through family courts for Residence Orders, Special Guardianship Orders, as foster carers or because their grandchildren may be considered for adoption outside of the family. We are a unique organisation that supports grandparents with all issues that may end with them appearing in a family court. The research showed:

—  63% were caring for one grandchild.

—  28% were caring for two grandchildren.

—  8% were caring for three grandchildren.

The ages of the children were evenly spread from 0-15 age groups:

—  64% are subject to Residence Orders.

—  21% are subject to Special Guardianship Orders.

—  9% are looked after children (in foster care).

For whatever reason they experience the family court system, all grandparents find the situation traumatic.

The effect of CAFCASS's operations on court proceedings, and the impact on the courts of the sponsorship of CAFCASS by the Department of Education.

It has long been acknowledged by many of us working with families that CAFCASS have far too many cases and that their resources have been spread too thin. Parenting plans where the issue of contact with the wider family is agreed may be workable in cases of divorce and separation. We believe that CAFCASS should retain their safeguarding role and move towards being involved only in those cases where, in the minority of cases, there are reports of abuse or domestic violence. The result of this should be speedier decisions (always in the best interests of the child) and more resources channelled in to those cases where the safety of the child may be claimed to be at risk.

All court appearances are perceived to be adversarial and to have the CAFCASS service placed within the MOJ would underline this. If we are really to believe that the family court is there to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount then it must remain alongside wherever the responsibility for children and families lie—currently at the DfE. If CAFCASS is to be seen as the voice of the child then it must not be put alongside the judiciary who are often perceived as being in conflict with each other because they are representing their client. To insist that the child is the top priority they must have a service away from this.

The impact on court proceedings and access to justice of recent and proposed legal aid

Children must not be denied contact with or the opportunity to live with members of their extended family because the family do not have the means to pay. Equally, we know that there is an extreme overspend on legal aid and many families claim that a parent will contest every decision or defy court orders if they are able to continually access legal aid. This process does not help the child who sees a bad situation drawn out and families edged out of their lives—sometimes forever.

Many of our grandparents are "capital rich but revenue poor" having bought their home but with little disposable income—particularly if they are raising a child because they cannot live at home with their birth parents. A large number of grandparents have spent in excess of £20,000 trying to have contact with their grandchildren only for the Order to be ignored. Proceedings have normally ceased when the grandparents have been unable to continue to fund the applications any longer.

The role, operation and resourcing of mediation and other methods in resolving matters before they reach court

When families cannot agree about contact with a child there needs to be an independent body that can cut through such issues and look at the best interests of the child without the emotion that such disputes cause. We would support mediation here but, because many families live far apart, this is not always practical. Mediation services will need to develop more "arms length" services to meet the needs of the wider family who may live some distance away. Some thought would have to be given as to who would attend such sessions (grandparents from both sides? Would there be different requirements in divorce and separation over family feuds?). The organisation has developed some methods to try to get families to try other methods first before applying to the court. It is essential that independent advice and support is available. Grandparents' Association always advocates court as the last resort to any families who look to this action immediately. In family feud situations this is not always an action that has a good outcome if other strategies have not been tried first. We believe that all grandparents should prove that, with the help and support of a truly independent organisation, they have tried everything possible before applying to the court. It is vital, however, that the time frame for this should be kept to a minimum as the child will be growing up denied such contact. If deemed to be in the best interest of the child, the grandparents should then be means tested as to who pays for the hearing. Children must not be denied contact with their wider family because of the grandparent's inability to pay. We would advocate for a befriending style support service to be developed (piloted in a few strategic areas) where grandparents could be accompanied to court by trained volunteers (often their peers) to present their case and, thus, cut down on legal costs of solicitors unless they were advised to do so.

The organisation also supports grandparents through the courts where there are non contested residence orders by helping them with the paperwork (DIY pack). If this could be extended to special guardianship orders and the service properly developed and financially supported there would be less need for local authorities to pay for solicitors in the cases that they are supporting. This would make a much more sensible use of public funds and would ensure the correct support packages are in place before the case goes to court.

Grandparents rarely feel that the system is fair as they state that the views and wishes of the child are rarely considered. The system fails in the diversity stakes as it has stereotyped ideas about the age and ability of grandparents to care for young children. Although our youngest grandparent is 28 years of age we have heard social workers oppose applications for residence because "at 50 the grandfather is too old to play football". Too many children are still being adopted outside of the family because the wider family has not been considered properly. Children living safely within the extended family, when they are unable to live with their parents, have better outcomes and the family saves the state up to £40,000 per annum including child care costs but they do need proper support including financial. The Grandparents' Association is the only organisation providing a tailor made welfare benefits service to kinship carers throughout the UK. In 2009-10 this very part time service brought in over £250,000 of benefits helping children stay within the extended family. This prevented the breakdown of the placement and a return to court. We are a member of the HRMC Benefits and Consultation Group. This service needs to be supported financially so that we can keep more children out of the court system without the family being plunged into poverty. CABs nationally are the main referrers to this service.

More use of Family Group Conferences (we work closely with Family Rights Group to ensure the family can take a lead in keeping the child out of the care system). There may be an opportunity, where a grandparent applies to the court for contact following a family feud, where a similar FGC service is offered so that other family members can provide a "neutral" place for contact. This could be a better procedure than mediation in some cases and more cost effective. We believe that this would have a better outcome, where extended family members are concerned, than mediation and the GPA would be willing to pilot such a service. Greater contact rights: it should be noted that not all grandparents are denied contact with their grandchildren because of divorce and separation. For many this denial follows a family feud or the death of their own child with the remaining parent denying contact as they want to "move on" with their lives. This cuts the child off from 50% of their heritage with no chance at all of any reconciliation.

We also believe that:

—  It is essential that the all party promise of removing the requirement for grandparents to apply for leave prior to an application for contact is on the statute books as soon as possible.

—  Grandparents should have the minimum right to letter box contact unless it is deemed unsafe or not in the child's best interests to do so.

—  Grandparents should be able to contact independent advice and support services before they enter the court system and, within a limited time frame, should be advised to seek legal representation after such attempts have been tried.

—  The organisation believes that grandparents must remain independent during times of divorce and separation for the child's sake. Whilst it is natural that most grandparents will support their own child we would like to see training and support groups for those grandparents who are trying to support the child during their parents' divorce or separation.

—  We would like to see similar services introduced for those grandparents whose children (usually sons) move back home as the grandparents then become the facilitators of contact between the child and the non resident parent. This is currently being piloted on a small scale by our project in Leeds and has lead to continued contact at the grandparent's home even when the non resident parent has moved on again.

—  Grandparents who are kinship carers should have the right to automatic contact (at least twice yearly) with any other grandchildren from the same family who have been adopted.

—  Training, information and support is vital for all grandparents who are denied contact. It must be acknowledged that denial of contact is not only because of divorce and separation and all such support services should, therefore, be separate from those who specialise in such fields as this can exacerbate the adversarial side of such family conflicts.

—  Children who are in care or living with their grandparents are desperate to remain in contact (Who Cares? and Children's Voices—published by The Grandparents' Association).

—  Support Family Group Conferences in such private law cases to enable the family to set up their own, agreed, contact place. This would only be used where there are only issues of family feud and not where there are child protection issues when contact centres should be used. Family Group Conferences should be required in cases of kinship care and non contact.

—  Grandparents feel that any order with regard to contact is easily disregarded and that they are not able to have such orders enforced. With many paying tens of thousands in legal costs and appeals the grandparents then find themselves in poverty trying to achieve, for them, what is in the best interests of the child.

—  As stated above, we believe that many of the contact cases should prove that they have tried alternative resolutions first (as explained above) through an organisation such as Grandparents' Association as we specialise in the needs of grandparents but only with the best interests of the child at its heart. We would also like to be able to properly roll out our DIY residence order service and extend to special guardianship orders in cases where they are not contested. This would cut the costs to both lawyers and local authorities. This would have to be managed and supported but could be run regionally thereby providing best value.

Any changes must have support mechanisms put in place. We would experience a huge rise in the number of callers to the helpline, requests for specialist information at the organisation and via BeGrand together with more support groups. Information must reach the optimum number of extended families and must be delivered in a number of formats—not just web based. Peer support, via the community on line or through specialist support groups, has been shown to give a better service than legal services.

The Grandparents' Association provides support and advice to grandparents who are raising or who have been denied contact with their grandchildren through the provision of a helpline, website, fact sheets, publications, support groups and community activity on the BeGrand website. It supports at grass roots levels and helps grandparents to make decisions as to when is the time to go to court for their grandchildren. It introduces them to solicitors and CAFCASS at group meetings so that they can obtain the best possible information and support before deciding whether to go to court would be in the best interests of the child. Any reforms would need to ensure that such support remained otherwise there will be a growth in the number of applications.

We believe that all professionals should receive training in to the benefits of the extended family as too many professionals have stereotypical and outdated ideas that need to be challenged to ensure that decisions about the children are taken in their best interests. Everyone who sits on fostering and adoption panels should also be required to have training about the importance of the extended family to children.

More information on support services, helplines etc should be available at court. The independence of support should not be undervalued. Many grandparents raising their grandchildren will not go to a local authority support group (usually only set up because of the requirements of an SGO rather than in the best interests of the child) and financial considerations are determining the order that the local authority is 'advising' on rather than identifying the order that meets the child's needs. We believe that the extended family need an advocacy service to help them through this process.

Confidentiality and openness in family courts, including the impact of the recent changes in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010

Grandparents just want to believe that any decision that is made is fair, transparent in the making and will be adhered to by all sides. We have not received any feedback with regard to the recent changes so will not comment on this.

September 2010

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Prepared 14 July 2011