Could a Close Relative be Awarded Contact by the Court?
They say that it takes a village to raise a child. For some children, this can be quite literally true, particularly where social and/or cultural norms favour the sharing of child-raising duties among a number of adults. In other cases, the day-to-day care of the child remains mostly in the hands of the parents, with other relatives having a close and loving relationship with the kids.
Whatever the relationship between a child and their relatives, courts will pay attention to such relationships in the event of a marriage break-down. In some cases, it might be appropriate to formalise contact between kids and their relatives.
What courts will consider
As with most aspects of Australian family law, the best interests of the child will form the basis of any decisions around care and contact. In the case of relatives, it is important for children to continue enjoying strong and loving relationships that have been formed with relatives prior to the parental separation. Issues of safety, healthy development and the overall welfare of the child will be balanced and weighed. And in terms of practicalities, the court will look at issues of distance and time constraints before any order is made.
Case by case
When a close relative applies to the court for contact with a child, the individual circumstances will be carefully considered. Where a close and meaningful relationship already exists between the child and the applying relative, courts will often consider such links to be important. Of course, children experience disruptions and uncertainty at the time of parental break-up. For this reason, the maintenance of close and stable connections can be valuable to the child’s emotional development.
Each family network will be different regarding the child’s interaction with various relations – fortunately, the unique nature of each family unit will be taken into account. When speaking with your family lawyer, it is important to detail the specific dynamics of your family in relation to any children.
Relatives such as grandparents might consider making an application to the court to formalise their future connection with the children. If a person is considering such a move, it is often the case that communication difficulties have arisen between the relative and one or both of the parents. Before an application can be lodged, it will be necessary to demonstrate that all attempts have been made to settle things amicably. It will be necessary to attend mediation together, so that the wishes of all involved in the matter can be aired.
Mediators in such circumstances are skilled at getting to the heart of people’s issues, such as anger, fear and concern for the children. Everyone involved will have a chance to share their ideas, with a view to finding a solution that is acceptable to everyone – and best for the kids.
Formulating a plan
If things work out well in mediation discussions, the parents and other relative of the child might well be at a stage to either create a parenting plan, or amend one that is already in existence. This would set out the details of the relative’s ongoing interaction with the child, including any specifics about days, times and/or venues of time spent together. This is a less formal document than a court order, but some people choose to lodge the parenting plan with the court in any case.
Staying in touch
A relative of the child might find that they are unable to reach agreement with the parents using informal processes. At this point, an application could be made to the court for an order setting out contact arrangements. The contents of the order will reflect the reality of each family’s situation. For example, if a grandparent normally sees a child on a particular day of the week plus certain holidays, this might be made part of the order. Other ways of keeping contact could involve telephone calls and/ or email exchanges that help to keep the child in touch with a close relative. Overarching considerations in all cases will be around continuity, connection and the developmental benefits to the child.
More than contact?
Sometimes a child of the relative can actually seek full parenting orders. This might involve unfortunate situations such as one or both parents being unable to care for the child. It can at times happen that a relative is given primary care of a child by the court, with parents maintaining prescribed contact. These can be difficult situations and any person dealing with such circumstances should seek detailed advice from an expert family lawyer.
At the end of the day, any and all positive family connections that benefit the child should generally be encouraged. After a break-up, it can be difficult to find common ground with relatives about maintaining healthy family links. Your specialist family lawyer can provide you with specific advice regarding ways to benefit your child’s development in the long run.