The breakup of a relationship is often a traumatic experience. Unfortunately, innocent bystanders frequently find themselves caught up in the crossfire.
Children are particularly vulnerable. After a breakup, who takes responsibility for them, pays for them, feeds and clothes them, and spends quality time with them? These are amongst the most pressing issues a family solicitor faces when helping a couple through separation and divorce.
But children are by no means the only innocent parties affected. Often the parents of the separating couple – grandparents to the children – suffer too.
Increasingly, grandparents are becoming the forgotten victims in family law disputes.
Data shows that a growing number of grandparents are making applications for a court order to see their grandchildren following the divorce or separation of their grandkid’s parents.
The close and loving relationship they had with their grandchildren before the separation is often overlooked or ignored, as the parents of the grandchildren battle it out.
Loss of contact with grandchildren, or the fear of it, maybe a source of great worry and anguish for grandparents. They may ask themselves, what can I do? Are there any avenues available to me to get a better arrangement without causing further distress to anyone?
Fortunately, the Family Law places great importance on the role of the grandparent – which is only fair considering the essential role many grandparents pay in the lives of their grandchildren. These may include providing financial support, looking after the grandkids, helping the parents day-to-day and offering a stable family environment.
While grandparents don’t receive an automatic right to visit or care for their grandchildren, a section of the Family Law Act sets out that children must have the right to spend time with their grandparent and communicate with them on a regular basis.
And if there’s any change in that relationship because of a separation, the courts are required to consider the nature of the relationship between the child and the grandparent and the likely effect of any changes caused by the separation.
This means that grandparents can do a great deal to maintain contact with grandchildren and children following a dispute. However, they must be careful how they go about it.
Whilst the grandparent-grandchild relationship is important to both grandparents and children, generally, it isn’t viewed on the same level of importance as the relationship between the parents and children. Unless the parents are unable or unwilling to meet the needs of their children, or in the case of neglect or abuse the court may recognise the grandparents as necessary or desirable carers of their grandchildren.
In any circumstance of divorce and separation involving children, the court will grant an order based on the best interest of the children.
What is the best approach for grandparents?
Where access to grandchildren is an issue, the best approach is for grandparents to try and resolve the issues themselves with the parents of the grandchildren. If necessary, formal mediation may help.
Grandparents should make every effort to maintain a good relationship with the parents and cooperate with them where possible. They should also avoid getting caught up in family disputes, particularly becoming the source of conflict and disharmony. Otherwise, the courts may be reluctant to interfere with the decisions and arrangements made by the parents.
But if these measures don’t seem to be working, then grandparents certainly have a right to apply for special court orders to see their grandchildren, especially where they feel they are being excluded for no good reason.
Providing they go about it the right way, the Family Law Courts will encourage and support grandparents through the process.
*Andrew Corish is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law with Corish & Co Specialist Family Lawyers North Sydney. He is trained in Family Dispute Resolution.