Grandparent-Grandchild Access: A Legal Analysis


The role that non-parents, particularly grandparents, can play in the lives of children can be positive and enriching.  However, many family circumstances do not fit the Norman Rockwell image that is popularly held of grandparents.  That some situations of access by a grandparent to a grandchild have entered the courtroom suggests that the traditional notion of "one big happy family" must be examined critically, and that sentimental, nostalgic assumptions should be challenged in each case.  More extensive empirical research is needed into contemporary grandparenting roles in general and into high conflict access situations, in particular.  As Thompson et al. stated:

The vagueness of statutory language concerning the "best interests" guideline and the limited amount of research concerning grandparent and grandchild relationships make it difficult to know what factors to evaluate—and how to evaluate them—when grandparents petition for visitation rights.…  Given the variability and complexity of individual grandparent-grandchild relationships and the families in which they occur, effective judicial assessment of the child’s "best interests" is undermined by the absence of reliable clinical or research procedures for answering these questions—or even knowing the proper questions to ask.[177]

It may be that in appropriate cases mediation can help grandparents and parents come together to work out an access arrangement that allows grandchildren to maintain an existing relationship with their grandparents, while at the same time allowing the parents to preserve their primary role in their children’s lives.

However, if the matter is litigated, the manner in which the courts deal with access claims between parents would usually not be the same as it would between a grandparent and a parent.  As such, the tests to determine the appropriateness of access should be reviewed to determine which best serves the interests of children in the context of their nuclear family unit, however constituted.  As indicated, legislatures should consider amending their relevant statutes, which would require holding a two-stage hearing to determine the appropriateness of grandparent-grandchild access in each case.  Certainly, if it can be first demonstrated that a child may be harmed by the cessation of pre-existing access, then the courts should consider the application based on the best interests test.  When harm cannot be shown then it is recommended that there be no further inquiry.  To do otherwise is for the state to intrude into the realm of the parent-child relationship in a manner that may now countervene the Charter.

Broadening statutory entitlement for grandparents and others to have access to children along the lines of article 611 of the Civil Code of Quebec, as recommended by the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access,[178] is clearly contrary to the judicial trend in both Canada and the United States.  This trend is respectful of constitutional considerations and of the parent-child relationship.

As Professor Sherry Colb commented:

The Court in Troxel v. Granville… demonstrated as much respect for contemporary reality as it did for the nuclear family.  To be a parent is to take on enormous responsibility for deciding what is best for one’s child.  It involves facing the certain knowledge that sometimes one’s decisions will have been wrong.  When they embark on that most serious endeavor, it is critical for parents that no one be given an automatic right to ask a court to second-guess their decisions, not even a grandparent.  The reality of responsible parenthood carries with it the privilege of having one’s decision be final in most circumstances.  Nothing about the Court’s decision in Troxel, however, prevents people who have shared the role of custodial parent from asking a judge to give that reality the weight it deserves as well.[179]

To give most parents decision-making authority about the individuals with whom they wish their children to associate is not simply a parents’ rights perspective.  By bringing some peace and stability to a nuclear family, it is also, more importantly, a perspective that provides for the best interests of children.  As Thompson et al. observed:

These [various] legal proposals assume, however, that adjudicated solutions to domestic disputes of this kind are desirable.  Alternatively, however, it might be wise to question the assumption that family law should strive to protect all the significant relationships which a child shares with adults.  Given the complexity of both children’s needs and family functioning, the fact that the law is a blunt instrument for ensuring relational ties should introduce caution into efforts to extend legal protection to the relationships with non-parental figures possibly significant to children.  While children doubtlessly benefit from the various adults contributing to their development, these relationships are meaningful as they occur naturally, not as they are judicially enforced.  Legalizing the ties that bind may, in the end, undermine the relationships nurturing the children we seek to assist.[180]


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