When we talk about access, which includes the right to see a child, we tend to think only in terms of the rights of the child’s parents. However, as the number of families affected by divorce increases, extended family members, including grandparents, begin to worry about their relationship with their grandchildren and whether or not they will play a meaningful role in their grandchildren’s lives. This becomes a very real concern for grandparents if their own child is not the custodial parent.
In the Province of Ontario, there are two pieces of legislation that govern the issue of access – the Divorce Act (which applies only to children of a marriage) and the Children’s Law Reform Act. There is no language in either Act that specifically refers to grandparents. However, the Divorce Act states that a court may make an order for custody or access on the application of either of the spouses, or by any other person. A grandparent would fall into this category, but they must first seek the court’s permission to bring an application for custody of or access to their grandchild. The Children’s Law Reform Act allows a parent of a child or “any other person” to apply for an order respecting custody of or access to a child (permission from the court to bring an application is not a prerequisite under the Children’s Law Reform Act.)
In Ontario, there is no presumptive right to access for grandparents or other people outside of the children’s own parents. The courts have taken the position that a child’s relationship with their grandparents is expected to be fostered and maintained through the grandparent’s own child.
Since 2001, the Ontario Court of Appeal has stated it is up to the children’s parents to decide if and when certain people should have access to their children. So long as there is no evidence the parents are behaving in a manner which demonstrates an inability to act in accordance with the best interests of their children, their wishes will be respected.
While the Ontario Court of Appeal acknowledges their approach may seem insensitive to the needs of grandparents, it is not the grandparents’ needs (or even the grandparents’ wishes) that must be viewed and examined. These cases are about the needs and interests of the children and the merits of a grandparents’ application for access to their grandchildren will hinge on the children’s best interests. There are a number of factors to consider when determining what those best interests are, including:
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- the wishes of the custodial parent, especially if there is no obvious benefit to the child from ongoing contact with the grandparent;
- whether or not there is an established, ongoing and positive relationship between the grandparent and grandchild;
- whether the grandparent has or will act in such a way as to undermine the child’s parent(s) or the child’s relationship with their parent(s);
- the severity of any conflict between a grandparent and the child’s parent;
- whether the grandparent has something special to offer the child, particularly from a family or cultural point of view; and
- whether the child will experience a sense of loss and/or abandonment if the grandparent is prevented from being part of the child’s life.
In 2012 the Ontario government introduced a new Bill that aims to promote the relationship between children and their grandparents, primarily in situations where the children’s parents are separated or divorced. Bill 67, titled “An Act to amend the Children’s Law Reform Act with respect to the relationship between a child and the child’s grandparents” received its first reading on April 17, 2012. If passed, the Bill will amend those provisions in the existing Children’s Law Reform Act which govern custody and access by prohibiting parents (or anyone else entitled to custody) from creating or maintaining unreasonable barriers to the formation and continuation of a personal relationship between the child and the child’s grandparents. In fact, Bill 67 would add the child-grandparent relationship to the list of considerations the court must consider when deciding what is in the child’s best interests. Further, in applications for custody, the court would be required to consider whether the parent applying for custody is willing to facilitate contact with the child’s grandparents. Bill 67, if passed, would not automatically give grandparents the right to access to their grandchildren. They would still have to apply to the courts.
Until we have change to Ontario legislation, grandparents are still considered legal strangers when it comes to access. To have their case for access heard in court, grandparents must file an Application and an Affidavit in support of their claim for access. In addition, they must provide a police clearance certificate and a Children’s Aid Society clearance. The outcome of these cases are very dependent on the specific facts of each case, however, any person applying for custody or access to a child can be certain that, in all cases, the children’s needs will be the paramount consideration.