Debating the issue of contact for grandparents
The importance of parental responsibility for grandparents
For millions of families, grandparents play a vital role in their grandchild’s upbringing. Some may look after a grandchild whilst their parents work, others may provide ad-hoc care but for many they provide the day to day care for their grandchild because their parents are unable to do so. This can be for a variety of reasons such as bereavement, ill health, neglect, abuse or substance addiction.
Unless there is a court order stating otherwise, only a child’s parents will have parental responsibility for a child. Parental responsibility gives parents a range of powers to make important decisions about their child’s welfare such as:-
- The child’s religious upbringing;
- Choosing the child’s school;
- Consenting to medical treatment including operations.
If a grandparent only assists with the care of their grandchild and the child normally resides with, or spends a significant amount of time with one of their parents then it is unlikely that a grandparent would need to have parental responsibility.
However, what if the child resides with a grandparent on an informal basis (meaning there is no court order in place setting out the living arrangements for the child) and the parents are absent or not involved actively in the care of the child?
In these circumstances it is not difficult to foresee issues arising should the child need routine medical care such as vaccinations or dentist treatment or applications for primary or secondary school when the time comes or even when applying for a passport to take the child on holiday. The grandparent would need to try and get hold of one or both parents to make these decisions for the child and ensure that the relevant body has evidence of the parent’s consent. This can be time consuming and a cumbersome process and many do not realise they have to go through this process until the need arises.
In more extreme cases what if the child has an accident or requires an operation and the parents are untraceable or not in a condition to make a decision? The child could be left in a precarious position if the person with day to day care of them does not have the ability to make such decisions in a, potentially, urgent situation.
There are a number of ways in which someone, other than a parent, can be granted parental responsibility. The relevant options for grandparents, assuming the child’s parents are still living, are to apply to the court for a child arrangements order or a special guardianship order. With these orders the grandparent would automatically be given parental responsibility for the child (in varying levels). If the child is likely to be living with a grandparent on a temporary basis because, say, the parent is ill or seeking treatment, then a child arrangements order may be more appropriate as a short term measure to both formalise the agreement and provide the grandparent with parental responsibility whilst the child is in their care. If however the arrangement whereby a child is living with their grandparent is likely to be permanent then it is sensible to consider formalising these arrangements by way of a Special Guardianship Order. These applications are much more involved as they will always require the involvement of the Local Authority so it is very important to take advice before issuing such an application.
Whatever the family dynamic, if you are a grandparent taking care of a grandchild in place of a parent, it is very important to seek advice on whether that agreement needs to be formalised to enable the grandparent to best care for their grandchild by being able to utilise the powers that are granted by having parental responsibility.
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