Weekly Family Law Update September 6, 2023

Research shows 1 in 10 children applications issued by non-parents, mostly grandparents

Most court applications regarding arrangements for children are made by the parents (save where the local authority is involved).

But a significant minority of cases involve other family members, or other adults. Little has been known about this group: how many people are involved, what kind of applications they are making, and so on.

A new study has recently been undertaken aimed at filling this gap in our knowledge.

The study was carried out by the Family Justice Data Partnership, a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University, and published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which undertakes research aimed at improving the family justice system.

The study investigated private law children applications (i.e. applications not made by the local authority) involving non-parents in England and Wales (referred to as ‘non-standard applications’), over a four-year period between 2017/18 and 2020/21.

The results of the study are illuminating.

Key findings

The key findings of the study included:

  • That between 2017/18 and 2020/21, there were around 5,500 non-standard private family law applications made each year in England and 300 in Wales, representing about ten percent of all private law cases.
  • That a diverse range of orders were applied for in non-standard applications including child arrangements, special guardianship, adoption, parental responsibility and parental orders (surrogacy).
  • That most applications in England and Wales – 56% and 59% respectively – were for a child arrangements order, i.e. an order that the child live with, or have contact with, the applicant(s).
  • That 5.2% of applications in England and 2.2% in Wales were for a parental responsibility order.
  • That a diverse range of non-parents were involved, including grandparents and other relatives, step-parents, foster carers, special guardians and intended parents.
  • That grandparents accounted for 58% of all non-parents involved in England and 63% in Wales.
  • That around a quarter of non-parent applicants and respondents were aged over 60, and were mainly women.
  • And that applications disproportionately involved individuals living in the more deprived areas of England and Wales.

And what can be done with this information? The lead author of the study, Dr Linda Cusworth of Lancaster University, explained:

“This is the first population-based study to explore these types of private law applications in England and Wales. We have examined the diversity of applications and the individuals involved, enabling a better understanding of their circumstances to increase the evidence base. We hope this report will promote useful discussions, and help practitioners and policymakers to focus on how best to meet the needs of families.”

What if you are one of the ten percent?

So what if you are someone wishing to make a ‘non-standard’ application, a grandparent for example? How do things differ for you compared with an application by a parent?

The answer to that question will depend upon the type of application, but you may well have an additional hurdle to overcome compared to an application by a parent.

For example, as mentioned above, most of these ‘non-standard’ applications are for child arrangements orders, many made by grandparents. But whereas a parent can usually apply for a child arrangements order at any time, a grandparent will first need to obtain the permission of the court to make the application.

In deciding whether to grant permission the court will consider such matters as the grandparent’s connection with the child, and any risk there might be of the proposed application disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it.

In practice most grandparents will be granted permission, but still it is an extra obstacle to overcome, one which some consider makes it unnecessarily harder for grandparents to see their grandchildren.

In the circumstances it is strongly recommended that anyone wishing to make a ‘non-standard’ children application should first seek legal advice from an expert family lawyer.