It is a common heartache among many grandparents: the rights they think, they wish or ought to have when it comes to seeing and having access to their grandchildren. Many ask: Aren’t we part of the family? or Do we have visitation rights?

The children ought to have a healthy relationship with grandparents- Ann Marie Mangion

Separation does not involve just the couple and the children but, many times, the grandparents are involved too.

That is because one of the spouses might resort to live with her/his own parents again and so the grandparents naturally become more emotionally attached to the grandchildren and feel a degree of responsibility towards them.

Another typical scenario is when the parents leave the children with the grandparents while they are working.

The grandparents are not babysitters because they are not paid to take care of the children, thus, the already present emotional attachment and responsibility towards the grandchildren is strengthened due to their continuous presence.

A reverse scenario is when the children used to spend a lot of time with the grandparents until the children’s parents separated, resulting with the sudden loss of the grandchildren due to the abrupt and unilateral refusal by a parent to allow any contact between the child and the other spouse’s family. Therefore, it is all too natural for the grandparents to feel aggrieved when the child is suddenly “taken away” from them.

Thus, it is also too natural for the grandparents to ask and wonder whether they are entitled to any legal rights as enjoyed by the children’s parents.

Rights, namely visitation rights, are enjoyed by the parent whose children do not normally live with him/her. Normally, these are enjoyed by the husband because, many times, the children are allowed to live with their mother while the father enjoys visitation rights.

Obviously, there are cases when the mother is not fit to take care of the children who are allocated to the father to live with while the mother will enjoy visitation rights and, most of the time, if she is not fit to take care of them, such visits might be supervised too.

But what about grandparents? Can grandparents have visitation rights as well? This is not an easy subject to deal with because it needs to be looked at from different lenses: that of the child, of the parent entitled to visitation rights (I shall refer to such parent as being the husband) and, finally, of the grandparents.

Let’s start with the child. Is it wrong for him to spend time with the grandparents? Of course not.

What about the husband? Should his visitation period be further diminished so that the children can spend time with their grandparents? Of course not.

Should grandparents be allowed to spend time with their grandchildren? A definite yes.

It seems that we are still in a conundrum. To solve this con­un­drum we need to tackle stability.

The child needs a stable home, where s/he knows that this is his/her permanent residence. Therefore, as it has been stated by the court on numerous times, the child needs to live permanently with one parent. The other parent will have visitation rights.

Obviously, most of the time the grandparents do eventually have a role because, as most parents go to work, they do need that extra hand to help them raise the children and the grandparents will help wherever needed, such as picking the children up from where they are dropped by the other parent or caring for the child while the other parent works and so on.

The grandparents have a vital role and it should not be understated.

In fact, the court has emphasised many times that the children should have a solid relationship with the grandparents where that relationship is an already solid one and of benefit to the children. The court noted that “the usefulness of the grandparents...cannot be discarded when dealing with a child of such a tender age because she needs continuous care” (translation from Maltese in a case decided by the Civil Court [Family Section] on June 28).

In another case decided by the Civil Court (Family Section) on June 23, the court ruled that even though the mother has been allocated visitation rights the maternal grandparents are still entitled to pick up the child for his maternal visitation rights even when the mother is abroad and this is because it is in the interests of the minor to have a positive relationship with his maternal grandparents.

On March 30, the Civil Court (Family Section) decided in yet another case to award care and custody of the child to the maternal grandparents.

In all cases the crux of the matter is not what the grandparents are entitled to but what is in the best interests of the children. The children ought to have a healthy relationship with grandparents, especially when these already play an essential role in the upbringing of the children and such role is continuously emphasised by the court.

Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.