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OCL appointment highlights value of grandparent relationships

Extended family members should be encouraged by a judge’s decision to appoint the Office of the Children’s Lawyer (OCL) to investigate a case involving grandparent access, Toronto family lawyer Christine Marchetti tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Without ruling on the merits of the grandparents’ underlying access claim, the judge in the case ruled there was enough “to warrant the appointment of the OCL to investigate this matter further.

“I also find that it is in the children’s best interests to do so,” added the judge.

Marchetti, a partner with Stanchieri Family Law, says that access requests involving grandparents are relatively rare but are important.

“Obviously, parents have so much to give to children, but kids also get a great deal from their relationships with members of the extended family," says Marchetti, who was not involved in the matter and comments generally. "The sense of community and of belonging to something bigger than the immediate family unit can be very valuable.”

The grandparents in the Superior Court case launched their access application in late 2016, a year after their daughter, the mother of two children, took her own life.

According to the decision, the grandparents claimed they had a close relationship with the children before their daughter's death, and that they continued to have contact for a while afterwards until the children’s father cut them off.

The father, meanwhile, claimed the grandparents exaggerated their previous involvement, and worried that the OCL’s involvement would be damaging for his children in their emotionally vulnerable state.   

However, the judge stated in his decision that there was no reason for the children to be made aware of the details of the litigation or the OCL’s involvement.

“It is worth exploring whether the children’s relationships with the grandparents can be salvaged, on what terms and under what circumstances,” the judge wrote, adding that an OCL investigator might be able to resolve some of the factual disputes between the parties.

Marchetti says the judge took a very child-focused approach.

“Hopefully the OCL’s report will generate some sort of resolution because it’s always better for children when the people in their lives are not fighting,” she says. 

The decision follows a boost for grandparents' rights activists last year when Ontario’s Bill 34 came into force. It amends the Children’s Law Reform Act to explicitly include grandparents as people who can initiate a custody application in court. The bill also forces judges to consider their emotional ties with their grandchildren when deciding what is in the best interest of the child.

Michael Mantha, the NDP MPP who introduced the private member's bill, says about 75,000 grandparents in the province have been denied the ability to visit more than 112,000 grandchildren.

During a debate on the bill, he told the legislature how devastating it can be for those impacted, comparing the loss of access to a "bereavement."

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