Legal Rights of Grandparents and Step Parents

Grandparents usually play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren and, naturally, the separation of their grandchildren's parents is often a cause for anxiety. If things are not working within the family, perhaps because parents cannot cope with their children, and social workers become involved, they will often look for another member of the family to take care of the children before turning to foster carers.

Do 'grandparent's rights' exist?

Not specifically, because the Children Act focuses on the needs of the child. However, it is usually the case that it is in the best interests of children to continue to enjoy a strong relationship with their grandparents, and many parents welcome the assistance that grandparents can give in helping them bring up their children. Often the children's time with their grandparents takes place as part of the children's time with their parents.

What action can a grandparent take if they are not seeing their grandchildren?

Any person concerned about a child, can apply to a court for an order in relation to the child's welfare. A parent can apply as of right, but anyone else has to complete a preliminary step; applying for permission from the court to make an application. A person does not have to apply for permission from the court where:

  • The child has lived with them for 3 years during the last 5 years, and within the preceding 3 months
  • Those with parental responsibility give their consent
  • There is already permission given (special requirements apply to some foster carers)

We would always recommend that mediation is considered before an application is made to the court. In cases where mediation is not practical or has failed, it is important to obtain practical legal advice as to how a court is likely to view the application. As with any case involving children, it is essential that this is done at an early stage. Arrangements for children can become established in a short period of time and, as can be seen above, time limits can apply to applications to the court.

What about long term care of grandchildren?

There are several options if parents are not able to look after their children and, again, early legal advice as to the best course of action is important, particularly if social workers are involved.

Applying for a child arrangements order may be the best first step. Sometimes, grandparents will adopt their grandchildren but in other cases a special guardianship order is an alternative which provides long term security for children who cannot live with their parents. There are different considerations which apply to each of these options and the approval of the court, and sometimes the local authority, maybe required.

If there are care proceedings, friends or relatives care, or 'kinship care' can be organised through a private arrangement or formalised in a court order. In this situation, the local authority retains parental responsibility for the child and places the child with the friend or relative who is a foster carer. The local authority will be involved and any prospective kinship carer assessed.

If you have any questions about your legal rights as a grandparent, please contact our Family Law Specialists.


Living with stepchildren is increasingly common. Step-parents, and this term includes civil partners having registered a civil partnership with a child's parent, are likely to develop close relationships with children who may, or may not, be in close contact with a non-resident birth parent. The law has always placed considerable importance on the rights and responsibilities of birth parents, but to what extent can a step-parent acquire rights and responsibilities for children with whom they have a relationship?

Parental responsibility is the most important concept in the relationship between parents and children but, although step-parents are frequently living with and caring for the children of their spouse or civil partner, a step-parent does not acquire parental responsibility for a child simply by marrying or entering into a civil partnership with the parent of that child. If a child requires medical treatment or is involved with the authorities, for example the police wish to question the child, they will often need to deal with a person with parental responsibility.

How can a step-parent acquire parental responsibility?

  1. Through a parental responsibility agreement
    A parental responsibility agreement is a formal document which is signed by a birth parent or both parents, if they both have parental responsibility, and registered with the court. An unmarried partner is not a step-parent of the children of their partner and cannot acquire parental responsibility for their partner's children using this route.
  2. By the court making a child arrangements order
    If the court makes an order that a child reside with a step-parent, either on their own or jointly with another person, probably a birth parent of the child, then the step-parent will acquire parental responsibility for that child.
  3. By the court making a parental responsibility order
    As in all cases concerning children, the court would base its decision on what is in the best interests of the child.
  4. By adoption
    By adopting a child, a step-parent acquires parental responsibility for that child.
  5. By being appointed guardian
    If a person is appointed as guardian in a will by a person with parental responsibility for a child, the guardian will acquire parental responsibility but only on the death of all those with parental responsibility.

What about other people with parental responsibility?

The acquisition of parental responsibility by a step-parent does not affect the parental responsibility of the other people with parental responsibility, unless an adoption order is made. Any person with parental responsibility may make a decision about the child, but if there is more than one person with parental responsibility and they cannot agree, then a court may need to decide for them.

If you have any questions about the rights of step-parents, please contact our Family Law Specialists.

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