Parental responsibility and rights FAQ

Who has parental responsibility?

In legal terms all mothers automatically have parental responsibility for their children.

The position is different with fathers, who only have automatic parental responsibility if:
• married to the child’s mother
• the father has been named on the birth certificate

In a situation where, as a father you don’t automatically have parental responsibility, you can apply for it.

What are parental rights?

There is no separate legal definition of parental rights. The concept is included with the legal definition of parental responsibility which is defined by in section 3 of the Children Act 1989 as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibility and authority which, by law, a parent of a child has concerning the child and their property”.

As a consequence, parents with parental responsibility have the legal rights to :
• choose and provide for the child’s education;
• decide about the child’s medical treatment;
• decide on the child’s name and any change of name;

Difficulties can arise where both parents have parental responsibility and disagree about some of the issues above.

When parents divorce, separate or split up, we are commonly asked whether there is an automatic legal right of access or custody. The answer is no.

If you have parental responsibility for a child but you do not live with them, you do not have an automatic right to spend time with your child but the other parent must consult with you before making important decisions about the child.

What is a parental responsibility agreement and what should be included?

Its primary use applies where a father doesn’t automatically have parental responsibility but the mother agrees to the father having parental responsibility.

Secondary but important uses include parents agreeing and recording issues such as the child’s religious education, what type of school the child should go to, what will happen in school holidays and 1 parent taking the child on holiday and financial maintenance for the child.

When does parental responsibility end?

Parental Responsibility automatically terminates in legal terms :
• if the child gets married between the ages of 16 and 18
• if the child adopted
• where the father has parental responsibility as part of a Residence or Child Arrangements Order which has been discharged
• where parental responsibility is not automatic for the father but has been lawfully obtained, an application to terminate his parental responsibility may be made by the child (but with leave of the court first).
• For mothers where the child has been legally adopted.

Can parental responsibility be removed?

Yes but the courts are generally very reluctant to make such an order. Where the court may consider terminating a father’s parental responsibility it will almost certainly need to be based on a physical or emotional risk to the child’s wellbeing and not just due to antisocial behaviour generally.

So, for example, it is extremely unlikely a court would remove parental responsibility due to a father being in prison for an offence which has nothing to do with his child.

Do Step-parents have parental responsibility?

Step-parents do not get Parental Responsibility on marrying the child’s biological parent.

Under current law step-parents can acquire Parental Responsibility for a child:
• If there is a Child Arrangements Order which provides for the child to live with the step-parent either on their own or with another person.
• If the child is legally adopted by a step-parent.
• Where there is a Parental Responsibility Agreement and all those who already have Parental Responsibility consent in that Agreement (see below for more information).
• Where the step=parent applies for a Parental Responsibility Order to court.

On acquiring Parental Responsibility, a step-parent will have the same legal duties and responsibilities as if he or she were the biological parent.

What’s the process where a step-parent applies for parental responsibility?

After a step-parent applies to the court for parental responsibility those that already have parental responsibility for the child get notice of the application and can then decide to oppose it.

The court will then determine on the evidence whether it is in the child’s best interests for the step-parent to have parental responsibility

Are there any typical issues that arise with step-parent parental responsibility agreements?

Circumstances vary greatly – in some cases things are very amicable but in other cases matters are extremely sensitive and a step by step, patient approach is essential.

Where both parents have remarried, step-parents on both sides might be part of the agreement so that you can end up with 4 adults with parental responsibility.

Where the result may be 3 or more parents with parental responsibility, clarity is recommended so that disagreements do not occur in future where 2 adults try to overrule a 3rd for example. A mechanism to resolve disagreements is generally worthwhile.