Information

Parental responsibility

What is Parental Responsibility?

This page explains the law on parental responsibility, what this means in practice and how a person can acquire parental responsibility.

Parental Responsibility is defined in s.3(1) Children Act 1989 as being:

"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".

The term Parental Responsibility attempts to focus on the parent’s duties towards their child rather than the parent’s rights over their child.

What does Parental Responsibility mean in practical terms?

When certain decisions have to be taken about a child, all those with Parental Responsibility for the child are allowed to have a say in that decision. The decision will have to be about the upbringing of the child. Day to day decisions should be taken by the resident parent or the person with whom the child lives without interference from other Parental Responsibility holders. 

In practical terms Parental Responsibility means the power to make important decisions in  relation to a child. This can include:

  • Determining the religion the child should be brought up with. Where there is a mixed cultural background this should include exposure to the religions of all those with Parental Responsibility until the child can reach an age where he/she can make their own decision on this. 
  • Determining the child’s education and where the child goes to school.
  • Choosing, registering or changing the child’s name.
  • Appointing a child’s guardian in the event of the death of a parent. 
  • Consenting to a child’s operation or certain medical treatment.
  • Accessing a child's medical records. 
  • Consenting to taking the child abroad for holidays or extended stays.
  • Representing the child in legal proceedings.

Parental Responsibility does not mean that a parent has the automatic right to:

  • Contact with a child. This is the child’s right and not the right of the  person with Parental Responsibility.
  • Know the whereabouts of other people with Parental Responsibility or where the child is living. In practice, this means that if the child lives with one parent the other parent does not have an automatic right to know the address  of that parent. The parent can apply to the court for this to disclosed and it may be disclosed if it is in the best interests of the child. 

Who has Parental Responsibility?

  • Mothers automatically have Parental Responsibility and will not lose it if divorced.
  • Married fathers automatically have Parental Responsibility and will not lose it if divorced.
  • Unmarried fathers do not automatically have Parental Responsibility.
  • Step fathers and Step mothers do not automatically have Parental Responsibility.
  • Grandparents do not automatically have Parental Responsibility. 

How can unmarried fathers obtain Parental Responsibility?

An unmarried father can obtain Parental Responsibility by:

  • marrying the mother
  • having his name registered or re-registered on the birth certificate if his name is not already registered*
  • entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother
  • obtaining a Parental Responsibility Order from the court
  • having obtained a Residence Order prior to 22.4.2014
  • by being named as the resident parent under a Child Arrangements Order
  • becoming the child's guardian on the mother’s death

The law has changed so that unmarried fathers who registered or re-registered their name on their child’s birth certificate after 1st December 2003 will have Parental Responsibility for their child.

Therefore:

  • If an unmarried father has a child after 1st December 2003 and he is registered on the birth certificate he WILL have Parental Responsibility.
  • If a child’s birth was registered before 1st December 2003 and the father was not named on the birth certificate, the birth can be re-registered to include the father’s name. Once this has been done, the father WILL have Parental Responsibility.*
  • If an unmarried father’s name is already on the birth certificate and the child was registered before 1st December 2003, the law has not changed this situation so the father WILL NOT have Parental Responsibility. (Unless obtained by other means).

*Please note there is an exception to this if the birth certificate is re-registered following a Declaration of Parentage by the court. If this applies to you contact our helpline for advice.

Does the mother need to consent to having the father’s name put on the birth certificate?

If the parents are married to each other, then either parent is able to register the birth and include both the mother and the father’s name on the birth certificate. The consent of the other parent is not required. 

If parents are not married then the mother will need to consent to the father’s name being put on the birth certificate.

Both the mother and father need to be physically present at the Register Office to sign the birth register. If one parent cannot attend, they must complete and sign a statutory declaration confirming they consent to being put on the birth certificate, but are unable to attend the Register Office. A statutory declaration is a formal document that must be signed by either a commissioner, a solicitor or the courts.

If the mother does not agree to include the father’s name on the birth certificate then the father can apply to court for a Parental Responsibility Order.

Does the father need to consent to have his name put on the birth certificate?

If the parents are married to each other, then either parent is able to register the birth and include both the mother and the father’s name on the birth certificate. The consent of the other parent is not required.

If parents are not married then the father will need to consent to have his name put on the birth certificate. The father will need to be present at the Register Office to sign the birth register or sign a statutory declaration if he is unable to attend.

If the father refuses to attend or sign a statutory declaration form, then the mother is not able to register his name.

What happens if neither parent can attend the Register Office to register the birth?

The majority of births are registered by parents but sometimes neither the mother nor the father is able to attend. If this happens it is possible that registration can be undertaken by:

  • the occupier of the house or hospital where the child was born;
  • someone who was present at the birth; or
  • someone who is responsible for the child.

Do I have any responsibilities for my child even though I do not have Parental Responsibility?

The law treats Parental Responsibility and child maintenance as being completely separate. An unmarried father who does not have Parental Responsibility still has a duty towards his child to provide child support maintenance. An unmarried father without Parental Responsibility will also still have some rights, for example:

  • he has an automatic right to apply to the court for certain court orders in respect to his child; and
  • if the child is in Local Authority care, he has a right to have reasonable contact with his child.

Can Parental Responsibility be transferred?

A person with Parental Responsibility cannot transfer his or her responsibility to another person. Parental Responsibility can be shared with another person, but not completely transferred. 

It is possible to delegate the responsibility of looking after a child to a married or unmarried partner, child minder, teacher, friend or relative, but the person with Parental Responsibility is still liable and responsible to ensure that proper arrangements are made for the child.

Temporary carers will not have Parental Responsibility but may do what is reasonable in all the circumstances for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare.

What is a Parental Responsibility Agreement?

A Parental Responsibility Agreement is an agreement made between the mother and the unmarried father to allow him to have Parental Responsibility. Both parents will have to agree to this.

A Parental Responsibility Agreement is suitable when both parents agree to the unmarried father having Parental Responsibility and the father is already on the birth certificate and therefore cannot re-register.

The Parental Responsibility Agreement must be signed and witnessed by a justices' clerk, or court officer and it must be filed at the Principal Registry of the Family Division. If the Agreement has not been filed it will not be legally binding. 

A Parental Responsibility Agreement can also be entered into by a Step-Parent who is married to a person with Parental Responsibility or by a second female partner.

What is a Parental Responsibility Order?

A Parental Responsibility Order is an order under the Children Act 1989, which unmarried fathers can apply for when the mother refuses to allow the father to be registered or re-registered on the birth certificate, or refuses to sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement with him.

The process involves the father making an application to court for the court to decide whether or not they should allow the unmarried father to have Parental Responsibility.

If the court decides that the father should have Parental Responsibility, the order will give the father equal Parental Responsibility with the mother.

For information on how to apply for a Parental Responsibility Order or enter into a Parental Responsibility Agreement, please see our How-to Guide on Parental Responsibility.

Can the mother oppose a Parental Responsibility Order?

The mother should be given a chance to put forward her reasons why she has refused to allow Parental Responsibility and why she does not think that the courts should make the order (for example, if there are welfare concerns). It is then left to the court to make a decision as to whether or not it will make the Parental Responsibility Order.

Courts are often willing to make Parental Responsibility Orders, but sometimes they refuse, such as the following cases:

  • The courts decided that giving the father Parental Responsibility could potentially put him in a position to misuse his Parental Responsibility in the future to interfere in the mothers care for the child thereby continuing to put stress on the mother and undermine her ability to care for her child who had multiple handicaps and special needs (Re M (Contact: Parental Responsibility) [2001]);
  • The father had injured his child and another child, and displayed cruel behaviour towards them both (Re H (Parental Responsibility) [1998]);
  • The father was found to be in possession of obscene photographs of children (Re P (Parental Responsibility) [1998]);
  • The father was serving a long term prison sentence for a number of robbery offences (Re P (Parental Responsibility) [1997]); and
  • The child was born within an established lesbian relationship, via artificial conception facilitated by the brother of one of the women,  and the two women were considered the child’s nuclear family and it would be inconsistent to grant the brother/father/uncle Parental Responsibility. (Re B (Role of Biological Father) [2008]).

Can people other than parents acquire Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility is not automatically granted to people who are not parents, even if in reality, they care for and are responsible for the child on a day-to-day basis. There are several ways that a person who is not the child’s parent may obtain Parental Responsibility for the child:

  • by being appointed as a guardian to care for the child if those with Parental Responsibility for the child have died;
  • by obtaining a Child Arrangements Order from the court which requires that the child lives with that person;
  • by becoming the child’s special guardian; or
  • by adopting the child.
  • A step-parent may make an agreement to obtain Parental Responsibility for his or her step-child providing all those with Parental Responsibility agree. The step parent must be married to or be in a civil partnership with the mother or father to enter this agreement. This is similar to the Parental Responsibility Agreement and it will not take Parental Responsibility away from those who already have it. A step-parent could also apply for a Step Parental Responsibility Order if they are married to or in a civil partnership with the mother or father.

Same-sex couples joined through Civil Partnership will also be able to obtain Parental Responsibility in the same way as an unmarried father can, detailed on page 2 of this fact sheet, and can apply for this in the same way.  

Please see our How to Guide on Parental Responsibility for more information. 

Local Authorities will be given Parental Responsibility if the child is under a care order, and will have it temporarily under an Emergency protection Order

If a guardian is appointed in a will by a parent would s/he receive Parental Responsibility automatically?

A parent can name a person in their will to be a guardian for their child. The will must be in writing, dated and signed by the person making the appointment. It can also be signed by someone else following the directions of the parent making the will.

The guardian will get parental responsibility for the child in the following circumstances:

  • Where no one else has parental responsibility for the child OR
  • Where the parent making the will (mother or father) has residence of the child under a Residence Order or a Child Arrangements Order.

Note that the guardian will get parental responsibility for the child but not residence of the child. If residence is in dispute the matter may need to go to mediation and court. See our page on Residence for more information on how to do this.

If there is a surviving person with parental responsibility for the child and there is no order for residence then parental responsibility will not automatically transfer to the guardian.

This is a complicated area of the law, if you have clarifying questions please take a look at our information page on Testamentary Guardianship or contact us on 0300 330 5480.

Do all Parental Responsibility holders have to agree before a decision can be made?

In most cases, decisions can be taken by one Parental Responsibility holder. It is not always necessary to seek the consent of another person if they have Parental Responsibility. 

For example a school may only need consent from one person with Parental Responsibility to take the child on a school trip. If the other parent strongly objects, they could seek a Prohibited Steps Order from court to prevent this taking place, and the court will make a determination for what they believe is in the child’s best interests.

Where there is a major decision to be made about the child’s life, all those with Parental Responsibility will need to agree. For example, if one parent wants to change the name of the child, or move abroad with the child or have the child put up for adoption, all those with Parental Responsibility must agree.

When does Parental Responsibility terminate?

Parental Responsibility terminates:

  • when a young person reaches the age of 18;
  • when a holder of a Parental Responsibility dies;
  • when a child or young person is adopted;
  • where Parental Responsibility has been obtained by a Residence Order (prior to 22.04.2014 or a Child Arrangements Order) and that Residence Order has been discharged or has expired; (if a father acquired Parental Responsibility via a Residence Order or Child Arrangements Order, he will not lose it on its expiry, unless a specific order discharges it).
  • where Parental Responsibility has been granted to a second female partner or step-parent through a Parental Responsibility Agreement or a Parental Responsibility Order it can only be terminated through a court order. 

Where Parental Responsibility has been granted to an unmarried father under a Parental Responsibility Order, a Parental Responsibility Agreement, or registration on the child’s birth certificate, a child or any other person with Parental Responsibility can make an application to the court to have it terminated. In order for a child to make such an application, they will need to acquire leave (permission from the court) first.

Only when adoption takes place, can a mother lose her Parental Responsibility.

What if parents cannot agree on a major decision about the child?

If parents are unable to agree about a decision concerning the upbringing of their child, they could try family mediation.

The aim of mediation is to lessen conflict and to try to resolve disputes amicably. The process of mediation differs throughout the country, in some mediation services parents are seen separately and then they are bought together to see if they can reach a compromise. In other mediation services the parents are seen together, sometimes with their solicitor or a representative present. 

If an agreement cannot be reached then either person can apply to the court for a Specific Issue Order or a Prohibited Steps  Order. The parent does not have to have Parental Responsibility to be able to do this. This order is effectively asking the court to make the decision on behalf of the parents, the decision will be based on what the court thinks is in the best interests of the child.

Can young people make their own decisions?

If a young person is old enough he or she is able to make decisions for themselves, and such a decision could include his or her religion. Parents are able to decide what religion their child should be bought up with, however, once the child reaches a certain age and is competent enough to be able to decide what religion to follow, he or she is able to make decisions in his or her own right. This would depend on the age, maturity and understanding of the individual young person.

Can I change my child's surname?

To be able to change a child’s surname, all those who have Parental Responsibility will need to agree. If the Parental Responsibility holders do not agree, the parent seeking to change the name can apply to the courts to obtain its consent to the name change. The court would then have to make the decision on whether or not it will be in the best interests of the child.

If a parent with Parental Responsibility has been absent from the child’s life and is un-contactable it is possible to change the child’s surname without the consent of that parent.

Once a child reaches the age of 16 they are able to change their name themselves.

Please see our page on Changing a Child’s Surname for more information. 

Do grandparents have special parental rights?

With regard to Parental Responsibility, grandparents are treated the same as any other person seeking to have a relationship with the child. They do not have any special grandparents’ rights.

If grandparents are caring for a grandchild, it is advisable to obtain a Child Arrangements Order or a Special Guardianship Order, because if either of these orders are granted, the person who has the order will automatically obtain Parental Responsibility.

Please see our pages and how to guides on Residence or Special Guardianship for more details.

Can I take my child abroad?

This is always a difficult issue. You need to have the agreement of all people with parental responsibility before taking a child abroad. Parents should be reasonable about this and provide the other parent with plenty of notice. Remember to always act in the best interests of the child. If the resident parent has a Child Arrangements Order, they are able to take the child abroad for up to 28 days without the consent of the other parent. For periods greater than 28 days, written consent of every person with Parental Responsibility is required.

If a non-resident parent wishes to prevent the resident parent taking the child on holiday, and there is no residence order in place, he or she will need to apply for a Prohibited Steps Order from the court. If a non-resident parent objects to the child being taken abroad, the resident parent may apply to court for a Specific Issue Order. This would override the non-resident parent’s refusal. If the Specific Issue Order is granted in favour of the holiday, this would override the non-resident parent’s refusal.

Applying for passports?

The application for a passport must be signed by one person with Parental Responsibility. In the case of unmarried fathers who have obtained Parental Responsibility through a Court Order or a Parental Responsibility Agreement, the original order or agreement must be sent with the application to prove the father has Parental Responsibility.

Please see our How to Guide on Removal from Jurisdiction for more information. 

 


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