Parental responsibility

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

What is 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 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;
  • 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.

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;
  • being named as the resident parent under a Child Arrangements Order;

* 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.

More detailed information can be found in our Parental Responsibility How-to Guide. Please note that a fee is charged for this service.

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 their 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.

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 court will consider the factors that the court considers relevant from the case of Re H (minors) (Local Authority: Parental Rights) (No 3) [1991] (the ‘Re H factors’):

  • The father’s degree of commitment to the child;
  • The state of the father’s current relationship with the child;
  • The reason for making the application.

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; 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, move abroad with the child or have the child put up for adoption, all those with Parental Responsibility must agree.

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 brought 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, 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 and the decision will be based on what the court thinks is in the best interests of the child.

Going further

More detailed information can be found in our Parental Responsibility How-to Guide. Please note that a fee is charged for this service.