The principle of parental autonomy established in Chapman v. Chapman, 2001 CanLII 24015 (ON CA) saw grandparents who sought an order granting access to their children opposed by the parents. In this case, the court found that the parents had the right to make decisions about the care and who could contact their children, including decisions regarding contact with grandparents. Parental autonomy has been applied in many cases involving disputes between grandparents and parents over access to children. The courts have suggested the following three questions must be answered in the affirmative for the principle of parental autonomy to be overrode:
(a) Does a positive grandparent-grandchild relationship already exist?
(b) Has the parent’s decision imperilled the positive grandparent-grandchild relationship?
(c) Has the parent acted arbitrarily?
Giansante v. Di Chiara, 2005 CanLII 26446 (ON SC) at para 18.
However, Chapman v. Chapman also acknowledges that the court should consider the best interests of the children when making decisions about access to grandparents. In particular, the Court of Appeal for Ontario noted that “A relationship with a grandparent can—and ideally should—enhance the emotional well-being of a child. Loving and nurturing relationships with members of the extended family can be important for children. When those positive relationships are imperiled arbitrarily, as can happen, for example, in the reorganization of a family following the separation of the parents, the court may intervene to protect the continuation of the benefit of the relationship.”
The question of whether a grandparent will be granted any access rights to a grandchild is determined by the best interests of the child. In Gordon v. Goertz, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that the best interests of the child is the only test to be used when making orders regarding the children in the case. Gordon v. Goertz, 1996 CanLII 191 (SCC),  2 SCR 27. Therefore, the court will consider the unique circumstances of each case when making a decision about access and will only consider the impact of the decision on the children.
As such, parental autonomy , should not be held with equal weight against the best interests of the children, and is instead a factor in the best interests test that is given significant consideration.
In some cases, the courts have recognized the importance of preserving the principle of parental autonomy and have upheld the right of parents to make decisions about the care of their children. However, in other cases, the courts have recognized that the best interests of the children may be served by granting grandparents access to their grandchildren. In some cases, the court has considered the relationship between the grandparents and the children, as well as the potential benefits of the relationship for the children, when making decisions about access. The courts have also considered the impact that denying access has on the grandparents and the children, how long the grandparent has been involved in the grandchild’s life, the respective wishes of the parents and the children, and the specific situation and factors of the matter that contribute to the best interests of the child.
When should grandparents intervene?
Importantly, in some cases, grandparents may even act as the parent if the parents are unable to care for the child due to incapacitation, illness, or incarceration. In such cases, grandparents may become the primary caregiver of the child. There are also cases where the court has split decision-making responsibility between parents and grandparents and has ordered that the children reside with the grandparents, while allowing the parents access time. Durdle v. Kleber, 2022 ONSC 2647 (CanLII)