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Access to Children by Grandparents: Does a Parent Have Automatic Veto Power?

Access to Children by Grandparents: Does a Parent Have Automatic Veto Power?

Although the case of Simmons v Simmons is actually from Nova Scotia, it’s an interesting and universally-applicable illustration of how Canadian courts can approach an access contest between parents and various other family members – in this case, the grandparents – and how even a parent’s own wishes can be thwarted in appropriate cases.

The father had died of cancer when the boy was only 15 months old. The paternal grandparents had visited the boy often, both prior and immediately after their own son’s death. But when the boy was almost three years old, tension and acrimony developed with the boy’s mother over the frequency of their visits. Although the grandparents were being denied access per se, the mother was not prepared to be particularly cooperative with them until they offered an apology for what she considered was their past ill treatment.

The discord resulted in the grandparents discontinuing their visits to the boy for several months.   Over the objections of the mother, they then succeeded in obtaining a court order granting them interim access to the boy. (And note: Such applications by grandparents are permissible in all Canadian jurisdictions). The application judge had concluded that the boy’s best interests were fostered by nurturing the relationship between him and his grandparents, and ordered that such access should increase gradually over a four-month period, culminating in day-long visits every second weekend.

The mother appealed that order based primarily on the argument that, on the narrow issue of who should access to her son, the prior judge had not given proper deference to her own decision-making authority as his mother.

The Appeal Court rejected that argument, and dismissed the mother’s appeal.

Contrary to the mother’s claim, the judge that made the initial order did not fail to accord proper deference to the mother’s decision-making authority respecting access. He did take it into account; what he didn’t do was let it override consideration of the boy’s best interests.

Although it was a general principle that parents should have autonomy over decision-making relating to their children, this paradigm was not the only acceptable approach to making a determination on the grandparents’ access rights in this case. Rather, the overarching test was merely whether granting such access was in the boy’s best interests.

In this case, judicial deference to the mother’s authority, as a parent, had to be tempered by the court’s willingness to recognize the benefit giving the boy exposure to his extended family, particularly since he had already lost his father.   The previous judge had thoroughly weighed this consideration, along with all the evidence both in favour and against an access award. There was also nothing to suggest that the judge made the order as a way of fostering hope or speculation that the grandparents’ access would resolve the tension between them and the mother.

For the full text of the decision, see:

Simmons v Simmons, 2016 NSCA 86; [2016] N.S.J. No. 494 (C.A.)

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