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.

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; or
  • 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;
  • 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.


  • 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 – the father WILL then have Parental Responsibility.**
  • if a child’s birth was registered before 1st December 2003 and includes the name of the unmarried father, the father WILL NOT have Parental Responsibility (unless obtained by other means).

How can a second female parent gain Parental Responsibility?

The rules below only apply to children conceived on or after the 6th April 2009. 

Same-sex female couples who are civil partners or married

The mother’s wife/civil partner will be treated as the child’s second legal parent if they were married or in a civil partnership at the time of conception and provided that the mother’s wife/civil partner consent to the treatment of insemination. (It is presumed that she does consent unless otherwise demonstrated).

This applies irrespective of whether the child was conceived through fertility treatment at a licensed clinic or through artificial insemination by private arrangement at home. There is one exception where it does not apply and this is if the child was conceived through sexual intercourse. 

As is the case with a married father, the civil partner/wife will automatically gain parental responsibility and can be named on the birth certificate without attending the birth registration. 

Same-sex female couples who are not civil partners or married

For non-civil partners or unmarried couples to be recognised as joint legal parents the following two conditions must be met: 

  • The couple must conceive through fertility treatment at a licensed clinic in the UK
  • The couple must both sign the election forms (which will be provided by the clinic) before the date of conception. The forms will not be effective if signed after conception which means that the couple must be conceiving the child together from the outset.

The non-birth mother’s parental responsibility is dependent on her being named on the birth certificate or, failing that, she can acquire parental responsibility at a later time via parental responsibility agreement or parental responsibility order. She will, regardless, be financially responsible for the child just like a natural father would be. 

Same-sex female couples who are not civil partners or married and conception was not through fertility treatment at a licensed clinic in the UK

The non-birth mother will have no legal parenthood and will have to consider step-parent adoption or could gain parental responsibility through being named jointly with the mother as a person with whom the child lives with under a child arrangements order. 

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.

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. Note that mediation must first be attempted with the mother before an application can be made to court. 

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 for refusing to agree to the father having Parental Responsibility and why she thinks the court should not 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 allow him to misuse his Parental Responsibility in the future, by interfering in the mother’s care for the child, thereby causing her stress and undermining her ability to care for her child, who had multiple disabilities 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]).
  • The child was born within an established lesbian relationship, via artificial conception facilitated by the brother of one of the women. The two women were considered the child’s nuclear family and it would have been  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 their 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.

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, will they 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 has residence of the child under a Residence Order or a Child Arrangements Order.

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; 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.

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 via a Residence Order (prior to 22/4/2014) or a Child Arrangements Order, and that Order has been discharged or has expired (note that this does not apply to a father, 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 first need to acquire leave (permission from the court).

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 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.

Can young people make their own decisions?

Once a young person is old enough and competent to form their own opinion, they will be able to make decisions in their own right. Competency will depend on the age, maturity and understanding of the individual young person.

For example, parents can decide what religion their child should be brought up with, but once the child reaches a certain age, they will be able to decide for themselves what religion to follow.

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.