What is Parental Responsibility?

22 Mar 2023 | Sarah Norman-Scott
lady with two children

Table of Contents

Understanding Parental Responsibility

Parental responsibility is the legal term used to describe parents’ duties and responsibilities for their children. These responsibilities exist until a child reaches adulthood or until specific court orders are made relating to the child, such as in adoption situations.

Despite being critical for the well-being of children, parental responsibility is not really defined

in English law. In practical terms, however, it includes making important decisions about where the child lives and goes to school and taking care of their health needs.

Legal duty to protect, care for and maintain your child

Parents with parental responsibility have a legal duty to protect, care for and maintain their child. This means they are responsible for making important decisions about the child’s upbringing and welfare. All those with parental responsibility have a say in these decisions, even if the child does not live with them.

Examples include:

  • Deciding where the child will live
  • Choosing the child’s name
  • Making decisions about their education and where they go to school
  • Taking care of their health and medical needs
  • Consenting to take the child abroad either permanently or for holidays
  • Making decisions about religious upbringing, if applicable

It is important to understand that parental responsibility is a “responsibility” for the children rather than “rights” over them. For example, having parental responsibility does not give you an automatic right to see your child or interfere with the day-to-day care the other parent provides, such as what the child eats for dinner or when they do their homework..

Who has parental responsibility?

The following people automatically have parental responsibility:

  • The child’s birth mother
  • The child’s father, if they were married to or in a civil partnership with the child’s mother at the time of birth
  • The child’s father, if they are registered on the child’s birth certificate
  • The female partner in a same-sex marriage or civil partnership with the biological mother of the child at the time of conception and they consented to the artificial insemination.

Can unmarried fathers gain parental responsibility?

The 1st December 2021 marked the 18th anniversary of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 amendment, which allowed unmarried fathers to acquire Parental Responsibility if they were named on their child’s birth certificate as of 1 December 2003. Prior to this, the only way a father would acquire Parental Responsibility automatically is if they were married to the birth mother at the time of the birth (irrespective of whether they were named on the birth certificate).

Of course, this caused many issues, and unsurprisingly many fathers were completely unaware of their lack of rights regarding their children. It also meant that when the birth mother passed away and didn’t name the father in her Will (for instance, because they had separated), those named as guardians would have PR and, therefore, more rights than the biological father. Step-parents were also affected in the same way.

If you are an unmarried father and not registered on the child’s birth certificate, you can still obtain parental responsibility by entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother. It’s a relatively quick and easy process if both of you agree.

If the mother disagrees, you may need a court order. The court will look at various factors when making a decision, including the current state of the father-child relationship and the father’s degree of commitment to the child.

Do step-parents have parental responsibility?

Step-parents can play an important role in a child’s life and may raise the child from a very young age. However, they do not automatically have parental responsibility. This means that legally, they have no say in the day-to-day child arrangements and may have problems signing school consent forms or taking the child to the family doctor.

A step-parent can gain parental responsibility if they:

  1. Are married to or in a civil partnership with the biological parent that the child lives with, and
  2. Have the agreement of everyone who currently has parental responsibility for the child.

A solicitor can help you write the necessary paperwork and have it approved by the court. This should be a formality if everyone is in agreement.

If someone who already has parental responsibility does not agree to the application, you can ask the court to make a decision. As with any decision involving children, the court will look at what is in the child’s best interests, including how the child feels about the situation if they are old enough to express an opinion.

What about adopted children and those born by surrogacy?

Legal structures are in place to give non-biological parents the parental responsibilities they need to care for their children. These arrangements differ depending on whether the child was adopted or born through surrogacy.

If you are adopting a child, the Adoption Order will sever legal ties between the birth parent and the child and give full parental responsibility to the approved adopters.

In a surrogacy situation, the intended parents will need to apply for a Parental Order. This will transfer full parental responsibility from the surrogate mother onto the intended parents, legally making them the child’s parents.

In both cases, it is important to get legal advice before starting the process, as there are strict eligibility criteria and time limits to meet.

Do I lose parental rights when I separate or get divorced?

You do not lose parental responsibility when you separate or get divorced. Your responsibility towards your children does not end when your marital status changes or if you stop living with the child’s other parent.

On the flip side, parental responsibility does not guarantee that you will automatically have an ongoing role in the child’s life after a separation or divorce. Decisions about where the child will live and how often the other parent will see them are made based on the child’s best interest, not the parents’ rights. However, the court will encourage the resident and non-resident parents to work together to ensure the best outcome for their children.

The law also treats parental responsibility and child maintenance as being completely separate.

Unmarried fathers who do not have parental responsibility are still liable to pay child maintenance, for example.

What if the parents cannot agree on important decisions?

Parents always make decisions on their children’s behalf and regard them as just “something you do” when you’re a parent. In most cases, everyday decisions can be taken by one parental responsibility holder. You don’t have to wait for the other parent to agree to a dentist’s checkup, for example, or consent to a school trip.

However, when there is a big decision, all parental responsibility holders will need to agree. Examples include whether the child should be immunised or changing the child’s name or gender. Mediation services are available to help with any disputes around these matters.

If a parent strongly objects to what the other is doing or not doing, and mediation is unsuccessful, they can ask the court to resolve the issue. A number of orders are available, including:

  • A Specific Issues Orders to resolve one specific question (e.g. where the child should live or go to school)
  • A Prohibited Steps Order to prevent something from happening (e.g. to stop the mother from relocating abroad with the child after a divorce)

Both would result in a judge considering the issue and deciding which outcome was best for the child.

However, Court should always be considered the last option, and parents should consider other forms of resolution, such as child-inclusive mediation (depending on the child’s age) or arbitration (providing there are no safeguarding concerns).

How do you remove parental responsibility from a father?

In the UK, a father’s parental responsibility may be removed in specific circumstances, including:

  1. Adoption – The birth parents’ parental responsibility is terminated when a child is adopted.
  2. Mutual agreement – Both parents’ consent can result in transferring or removing a father’s parental responsibility through a Parental Responsibility Agreement.
  3. Court order – In cases of neglect or abuse, a court may issue an order modifying or terminating a father’s parental responsibility if it is in the child’s best interests.

It’s crucial to acknowledge that parental responsibility is a vital right and responsibility, and revoking it is a significant decision that should not be taken lightly. If you’re thinking about removing a father’s parental responsibility, it’s critical to speak to a family law solicitor to explore your choices and the potential ramifications of your decision.

When does parental responsibility end in the UK?

In the UK, parental responsibility isn’t terminated automatically when a child attains a particular age. Usually, it ends when the child turns 18 unless special conditions apply. Parental responsibility may also be changed or removed in specific circumstances, like adoption, court orders, or the placement of the child under someone else’s guardianship.

It is worth noting that even after a child turns 18, parents could still be responsible for financial support if the child is in education or training. Furthermore, many parents maintain strong bonds with their grown-up children and provide emotional or practical assistance.

If you have any specific inquiries or worries regarding parental responsibility in the UK, Osbornes Law can help. Fill out the enquiry form below or call us on 020 7485 8811.

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