The role of grandparents continues to evolve and perhaps become increasingly more important. Almost two thirds of all grandparents look after their grandchildren regularly, often whilst parents are at work. A contributory factor is the cost of childcare which means there are many informal family arrangements.
The Children Act 1989 as amended requires grandparents to seek permission (leave) of the court to file a section 8 application. This creates a two stage procedure, except in some exceptional circumstances where a grandparent may make an immediate application.
A grandparent has no parental responsibility in law which means they cannot make major decisions such as about medical treatment, schooling and for travelling outside the UK which can present difficulties for grandparents caring for their grandchildren. In the case of Re J (Leave to Issue Application for Residence Order)  1 FLR 114, Thorpe J suggested that trial judges should have greater appreciation for the contribution made by grandparents for the care of their grandchildren.
A large number of grandparents may sadly lose contact with their grandchildren when parents separate. The first step must always be to try to resolve issues within the family by agreement or through mediation.
Which court orders can grandparents apply for? The most likely court orders are a Special Guardianship Order (Section 115 of Adoption and Children Act 2002) or a Child Arrangements Order (Section 8 Children Act 1989 as amended).
- A Special Guardianship Order lasts until a child is 18 unless changed by earlier court order. It enables the special guardian to have parental responsibility for the child and to take most decisions about the child without consulting the parent. Major decisions such as changing the child’s surname or taking them abroad for more than three months require agreement of the parents or the court’s permission. The child retains birth family links albeit that the parental responsibility of the parents is reduced.
- A Child Arrangements Order can be granted to grandparents to confirm that the grandchild lives with them, provided they have the court’s permission to seek such an order or are exempt from doing so. A Child Arrangements Order granted to grandparent(s) can set out who the child lives with and how much time the child will spend with the parent(s) or other persons with parental responsibility.