Parental Responsibility

What is Parental Responsibility 

There is no legislation that clearly sets out what parental responsibility is. Parental responsibility was formerly termed ‘custody’. The new term was introduced by the Children Act 1989 and it refers to all the duties, powers, rights and responsibilities that a parent possesses by law in relation to their child and any property belonging to that child. The following are all examples of parental responsibilities:

  • Providing a home where the child can live in;
  • Making any decisions about medical treatment;
  • Financially providing for the child; 
  • Appointing a guardian;
  • Giving consent for the child to marry if they are aged 16 or 17;
  • Making arrangements for the child’s religious education

The list is not exhaustive. In short, whoever has parental responsibility possesses the authority to make all decisions regarding that child. 

Who has Parental Responsibility?

If a child’s parents are married at the time the child is born or, they jointly adopt a child, they both automatically have parental responsibility. However, if the child’s parents are unmarried then the mother alone will automatically have parental responsibility. It is nevertheless important to note that even if the child’s parents are unmarried, there are still ways in which the father can assume parental responsibility. If the parents were married when the child was born or a child was jointly adopted, both parents retain parental responsibility in the event of a divorce. A child’s parents are not the only ones who can acquire parental responsibility, other persons and authorities can also be granted parental responsibility in numerous circumstances. For example, anyone in whose favour a residence order (an order made to clarify with who and where the child is to live) has been made will also acquire parental responsibility. This could be the child’s grandparents, for example, or another of the child’s relatives or a guardian. If a child is taken into the Local Authority’s care, whether by means of an emergency protection order (an order made to remove the child for a short period of time as there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is suffering or will suffer significant harm if not removed) or, by means of a care order (the court places the child under the care of the Local Authority) then the local authority will assume parental responsibility for the length of time that the orders last for. During that time, parental responsibility is shared with the parents. Although only two people can be a child’s parents, more than just two people can have parental responsibility, as the above examples demonstrate. 

As an unmarried father how can I get Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility may be attained by making a formal agreement with the child’s mother (parental responsibility agreement) or through an application to the court for a parental responsibility order to be made. When making the order the courts main consideration will be the child’s welfare. The court will however also take into account the following:

  • the commitment that the father has demonstrated towards the child
  • the attachment between father and child
  • the father’s purposes for applying for the order

Can I be a parent without having Parental Responsibility? 

A father who does not have parental responsibility can of course still act like a parent to their child. They can still play with them, clothe them, feed them, provide financially for them and act like a parent in every practical respect. There are a lot of fathers out there without parental responsibility who do not know that they don’t have it and still have healthy relationships with their children, fulfilling their role as a loving and committed parent and forming a strong attachment with them. The limitations will be on those fathers’ rights to make certain decisions or take certain actions regarding their children. For example, they would not have access to their children’s health records and they would not be able to give their consent to have their child adopted or freed for adoption

What rights do I have if I don’t have Parental Responsibility?

Even in a situation where a parent does not have parental responsibility, they still have many basic rights that flow simply from their status as a parent. The following are the rights and duties that arise from parenthood itself:

  • If a child is deceased a parent will have the right to inherit that child’s estate;
  • A parent has a right to apply for section 8 orders which include, a residence order (as outlined above); a contact order (an order setting out the extent to which a child is to have contact with a named individual); a prohibited steps order (an order prohibiting certain actions in relation to the child for example, taking the child out of the country) and; a specific issue order (an order concerning certain aspects of a child’s upbringing such as for example, medical treatment or religious education);
  • Children who are in the care of a Local Authority should have reasonable contact with their parents;
  • When an application for an emergency protection order (as outlined above) is made, the parents have a right to be told and they can apply to have it discharged;
  • A right to citizenship for example, such as being a British citizen, mainly passes through parental lineage
  • Parents cannot marry or have incestuous sexual relations with their children;
  • If a child is not living with a parent, that parent has a legal obligation to make financial contributions, as outlined in the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000.

As can be seen above, a parent who does not have parental responsibility does have some rights and duties regarding their child but, they relate more to ensuring the child’s general wellbeing than to their day-to-day upbringing so, it is always better to secure parental responsibility where the possibility arises if you do not already have parental responsibility for your child.