HC Deb 12 July 1977 vol 935 cc225-7

3.43 p.m.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Guardianship of Minors Act 1971 and 1973 and the Guardianship of Children (Scotland) Acts 1886 to 1973 to provide for access to minors by grandparents; and for connected purposes. The purpose of the Bill is to remedy a serious and tragic gap in family legislation. One of my first constituency cases after my election last December concerned a couple who had been denied access to their grandchildren whose parents had been killed. My constituents took legal advice and discovered that, apart from a wardship application to the High Court, which was far beyond their means and was unlikely to succeed, they had no legal remedy. In short, they were not legally entitled even to see their own grandchildren.

In the course of investigating this case, I discovered that it was not unique in my constituency. Indeed, as my research continued, I discovered that it was a more general and widespread problem. I discovered that I had blundered upon a major deficiency in family law which has been—and is—a source of deep human anguish to many children and their grandparents.

The purpose of this Bill is not to permit grandparents automatic access to their grandchildren. What it does is to amend the Guardianship Act 1973 to enable grandparents to apply to a magistrates' or county court for such access. It will be the duty of the court to have as its paramount consideration the interests and well-being of the child or children concerned. It is fully entitled not to grant an access order. If it does decide to do so, it must be under such conditions as it thinks fit in the interests of the children.

The Home Office has pointed out that the granting of such access might be harmful to children, but in my short one-clause Bill I have endeavoured fully to meet these arguments. The Bill has, I am glad to say, received support from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, from those lawyers specialising in family law whom I have consulted, and from the court welfare officer in the divorce court welfare service of the High Court.

The suggestion has been made that the scope of the Bill might usefully be extended to other relatives, but I have felt that in the first instance the right to apply for access should be limited to grandparents, who have a very special position. It has also been suggested to me that the time is overdue for a major revision of family law and the establishment of specialised courts. While I appreciate the strength of such arguments, they lie far beyond the purposes of this Bill.

Although this is a very short and modest Bill, it has, I believe, three particular merits.

First, it does not complicate the law but makes it more compassionate and humane. Secondly, it does not harm anyone but gives the real possibility of restoring some happiness to many children and their grandparents. Thirdly, it endeavours to meet a real, actual and tragic problem in a sensible, sentitive and fair manner.

But it may also serve to emphasise that this House remains, as it always has been, receptive to the appeals of those in anguish and can willingly turn from party controversy to consider with sympathy and understanding the plight of those whose lives have been most cruelly distressed by defects in the law.

By remedying this defect the House will not only make the law more rational and humane. It may also remind everyone that it will always listen to and will always respond to appeals from individuals for justice and humanity.

It is in this spirit and in this expectation that I ask the leave of the House to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Rhodes James, Mr. Kenneth Baker, Mr. Peter Bottomley, Mrs. Barbara Castle, Mr. Eric S. Heifer, Mr. Michael Marshall, Sir David Renton, Mr. Neville Sandelson and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe.


Mr. Robert Rhodes James accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Guardianship of Minors Acts 1971 and 1973 and the Guardianship of Children (Scotland) Acts 1886 to 1973 to provide for access to minors by granparents; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday and to be printed. [Bill 166.]