Parental Responsibility Explained

If you want to make important decisions relating to your child, then it’s important that you understand the concept of parental responsibility. Understanding how parental responsibility works can ensure you get to have a say in important matters relating to the upbringing of your child. Keep reading for information on what parental responsibility is, who has it, how you can obtain it, and what it means to you and your child.


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What is parental responsibility?

The Children Act (1989) defines parental responsibility as:

“all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.

In practical terms, parental responsibilities include:

  • protecting your child and their property
  • providing financially for your child, including providing a home
  • naming your child and deciding on any name change
  • making decisions about your child’s schools and education, and medical care
  • disciplining your child.

What rights does parental responsibility give me?

If you have parental responsibility it allows you to have a say in important decisions relating to your child.

Rights that parental responsibility gives you include:

  • choosing which school your child goes to
  • deciding where your child lives
  • choosing and changing your child’s name (including their surname)
  • determining which religion your child should be brought up in, if any
  • making decisions relating to your child’s medical treatment
  • consenting to your child leaving the UK either for a holiday or to live permanently
  • appointing a guardian for your child in the event of the death of a parent.

While parental responsibility gives you rights to be involved in big decisions, you won’t get a say about every aspect of your child’s life. The parent with whom the child lives should be allowed to make day-to-day decisions about the child’s welfare without interference.

Note that parental responsibility does not give you the right to contact, as this is considered the child’s right.

Who automatically has parental responsibility?

Mothers

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility as they gave birth to the child.

Fathers

If you’re married to the mother, or were once married to the mother but are now divorced, then you automatically have parental responsibility. If you’re an unmarried father, then you also have parental responsibility if you are named on your child’s birth certificate and your child was born after 1 December 2003 (in England).

Who else can have parental responsibility?

If you’re not the child’s mother, or father as outlined above, you can still have parental responsibility.

You may be able to obtain parental responsibility if you:

  • are an unmarried father not named on the birth certificate, or your child was born before 1 December 2003 (in England).
  • are a step-parent.
  • have a Child Arrangements Order where you’re named as the person your child lives with (for example, you may be a grandparent or other relative).
  • are a same-sex partner.
  • have been appointed as a guardian.
  • adopt a child.

In certain cases, the local authority can also obtain parental responsibility, for example by obtaining an order and taking your child into care.

How do I get parental responsibility?

Unmarried fathers

If you’re an unmarried father, you can obtain parental responsibility by:

  • Marrying the child’s mother
  • Being named on the birth certificate for your child (if they were born after 1 December 2003 in England)
  • a court awarding you parental responsibility (see the section below)
  • entering into a formal Parental Responsibility Agreement with the child’s mother (see the section below)
  • being granted a Child Arrangements Order which states your child will live with you
  • being appointed a guardian by the court.

Step-parents

Step-parents can gain parental responsibility if they are married or in a civil partnership with a parent who has parental responsibility.

You do this by:

  • gaining the consent of all parties who have parental responsibility and entering into a formal agreement, or
  • obtaining a Parental Responsibility Order from a court, or
  • being awarded parental responsibility by a court, or
  • adopting a child.

Same-sex female couples

If you were married or in a civil partnership with your child’s mother at the time of conception, then you will be treated as your child’s second legal parent. You will automatically gain parental responsibility and you can be named on the birth certificate.

It doesn’t matter whether your child was conceived through licensed fertility treatment in the UK or through artificial insemination at home.

Note that the above will not apply of the child was conceived through sexual intercourse.

If you’re a same-sex couple but you’re not married or in a civil partnership, you can still be recognised as joint legal parents if:

  • you conceive through licensed fertility treatment in the UK
  • you sign the election forms which are provided by the clinic before the conception. You must show that you are conceiving together from the outset, and so a form signed after conception will not be recognised.

A mother will automatically gain parental responsibility, and so if you’re the other parent you will need to be named on the birth certificate or obtain a Parental Responsibility Agreement or Parental Responsibility Order (see the section below).

Remember that even if you don’t have parental responsibility that you will have responsibilities to the child in the same way a natural father would (see the section below).

Does everyone with parental responsibility have to agree about decisions affecting the child?

No. Day-to-day decisions which affect the upbringing of your child will normally be made by one parent. For example, keeping your child away from school for a day because they are unwell would not generally require both parties to agree. Similarly, one parent may decide whether a child should go on a school trip.

However, where major decisions must be made – for example, which school your child should attend or whether they have medical treatment – then all parties with parental responsibility will need to agree.

As an example, you can’t change your child’s name without the consent of the other people with parental responsibility. You also cannot take them out of the UK without the consent of all those with parental responsibility.

Can a mother object to me having parental responsibility?

A mother can’t object to you having parental responsibility if it’s been automatically granted to you (for example through marriage or because you’re named on your child’s birth certificate).

However, if you apply to the court for parental responsibility then it is possible for a mother to object. They would have to provide evidence to the court as to why they think the order should not be made.

Examples of where the court has refused to grant parental responsibility include:

  • where there are welfare issues, such as previous violent behaviour
  • where the other parent is serving a long-term prison sentence
  • where the applicant was a sperm donor for a child that was born within an established same-sex relationship.
  • where granting parental responsibility might risk a father interfering in the mother’s care for the child, thereby causing her stress and undermining her ability to care for her child.

If I don’t have parental responsibility, do I have any responsibilities to my child?

Yes. Just because you don’t have parental responsibility does not mean that you have no rights and responsibilities to your child. You can enjoy a very healthy relationship with them even if you may not have the right to be involved in significant decisions.

Many fathers have an excellent relationship with their child even though they are unaware that they don’t have parental responsibility.

You can still act as a parent to the child, and you still have a responsibility to provide financially. You retain the rights apply to the court for orders, and to have reasonable contact with your child if they are in local authority care.

Can a step-parent gain a Parental Responsibility Agreement?

The two criteria for a step-parent obtaining a Parental Responsibility Agreement are:

  • You must have the written consent of everyone who already has parental responsibility for the child
  • You must be married to the biological parent with whom your child lives.

A Parental Responsibility Agreement will be signed at the court and witnessed by a court officer. You’ll need to provide your marriage certificate, ID and the child’s birth certificate.

What is a Parental Responsibility Order?

If you’re a parent or step-parent and can’t obtain a Parental Responsibility Agreement, you can apply to the court for a Parental Responsibility Order.

The court will consider the welfare of your child and decide whether it is in their best interests for you to have parental responsibility. You’ll have to demonstrate sufficient commitment to your child to justify the order, and the court will also consider the strength of the relationship between you. The court will also consider the reasons and rationale behind your application.

Unmarried fathers will typically be granted such an order unless the court believes there are compelling reasons why they should not.

When does parental responsibility end?

Parental responsibility ends when:

  • Your child reaches the age of 18
  • The person with parental responsibility dies
  • Your child is adopted
  • The order that granted parental responsibility has expired or has been discharged or terminated by a court.

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