11/09/2015 11:10 BST | Updated 11/09/2016 06:12 BST

Do Grandparents Have a Right to See Their Grandchildren?

Grandparents can be extremely useful to new parents in offering advice, emotional support and free childcare, but a growing number of them are frustrated by a lack of access to their grandchildren, typically shut out due to a breakdown in family relations.

Grandparents can be extremely useful to new parents in offering advice, emotional support and free childcare, but a growing number of them are frustrated by a lack of access to their grandchildren, typically shut out due to a breakdown in family relations.

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With the cost of raising children being substantial not only at home but also once they've left, it's no surprise that many young families are happy to let grandparents help out. And it's not simply about reducing childcare costs - research undertaken in 2014 indicated that one in five parents would be forced to give up employment if their parents could not assist with childcare.

Grandparents are suffering

A growing number of grandparents are considering legal action to gain access to their grandchildren, with 2,500 doing so in 2014. Esther Rantzen's appearance on The One Show last year to talk about grandparent's rights prompted a huge response from grandparents eager to share their stories.

There are a number of reasons why grandparents may lose access to their grandchildren. It's commonly the result of a family feud or messy divorce, but Rantzen revealed "often grandparents tell me they simply have no idea why they have been cut off."

Jane Jackson explains on the Bristol Grandparents Support Group website how she was unable to send birthday and Christmas presents to her grandchildren after her son got divorced. She was even threatened with arrest for attempting to stay in touch with her granddaughter.

What rights do grandparents or grandchildren have?

Parents aren't breaking the law if they decline access to their children, but grandparents can get a court order demanding access if they feel it is in the interest of the child.

Out of court resolution

Marilyn Stowe, a senior partner at a family law firm, suggests trying to resolve the issue out of court is a better approach than legal proceedings. She says that people who have been cut-off from family members should begin by asking themselves if they have contributed to the situation.

Family disputes often get highly charged and can lead to stubbornness and grudges. Arguments and conversations get twisted or misremembered and all too quickly those involved may find themselves unwilling to make reasonable compromises.

Out-of-court mediation involving a third party can help to control discussions and help facilitate agreements from an objective standpoint.

Legal proceedings

If legal action is taken there's a specific process that is followed. Those who submit an application for court proceedings are required to attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting, or MIAM beforehand.

A court process can be a bitter experience and cause further resentment between the two sides. This is why mediation is such an important option to consider. Legal action is likely to further deteriorate the relationship and make visitation or access difficult to organise.

In France legislation is more clear-cut; children have the right to contact their extended family if they wish. It means that cases are much less likely to go to court in the first place as parents acknowledge this right.

Grandparents' rights campaign

Some want changes to UK legislation to provide grandparents with the right to contact their grandchildren. While it might seem fair there are important reasons why parents have the last say on who has access to their children.

Becca Bland, founder of Stand Alone, a UK charity devoted to supporting adults estranged from their families, explains that she has no contact with her parents in the interests of her own mental and physical wellbeing, and that the introduction of grandparents' rights would be "a dreadful violation of my judgement and free will".

"The legal right to have contact with grandchildren bypasses the hard work needed to fix relationships in family breakdown. It is a cheap way to avoid facing the idea that the grandparent might have had a part to play in the breakdown of the situation, and could be partly responsible for amicable contact becoming withheld in the first place."

This is why it's crucial that every case is looked at on an individual basis, to ensure the interests of the child are placed above that of parents or grandparents.

Sometimes grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren for less sad reasons - young families may want to move abroad or take a gap year. While grandparents should be able to stay in touch with their grandchildren, parents should be free to make a home wherever they wish.

Image used under creative commons licence courtesy of Juhan Sonin.