In England and Wales, the court has the power to remove parental responsibility from an unmarried father. However, this only happens in very limited circumstances.
What is parental responsibility?
Under Section 3 of the Children Act 1989, parental responsibility is defined as “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.”
Parental responsibility usually lasts until the child is 18 years old. It gives someone the right to make key decisions about the child’s care and upbringing, such as:
- The child’s name
- The medical treatment the child should or should not receive
- The religion the child should practice
- Where the child should go to school
- Where the child should live
- Whether the child should move abroad
- New arrangements for dealing with the child’s property and finances
All mothers automatically have parental responsibility, as do fathers who are married to the mother at the time of the birth, or who are registered on the birth certificate.
Fathers can also acquire parental responsibility via a voluntary arrangement with the other parent, or through the courts.
What is a Parental Responsibility Order?
If a father is not married to the mother of their child, and the mother is unwilling to register his name on the birth certificate or to sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement, then the final option is to get a Parental Responsibility Order.
This is a type of Court order. It involves making an application to the Court, seeking that an order is made providing you with Parental Responsibility.
Due to the powers and responsibilities that come with parental responsibility, the Court will consider various factors before granting an Order. This includes:
- The father’s current relationship with the child
- What contact the father has with the child
- The father’s commitment to the child throughout their life
- Why the father is asking the Court to make this order
What if we adopt a child – will we obtain Parental Responsibility?
You will acquire parental responsibility when you adopt a child.
What does having Parental Responsibility mean?
By having parental responsibility, you have the power to make important decisions about your child’s life. This can include (but is not limited to):
- Decisions about the child’s education and where the child will go to school
- Obtaining the child’s medical records
- Consenting to any medical treatment for the child
- Changing the child’s name
- Taking the child abroad for holidays or extended stays
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Do I need permission to move abroad with my child?
If you want to move abroad with your child, you require written consent from everyone with parental responsibility.
If your former partner disagrees with the proposed move, he/she could issue an urgent application for a Prohibited Steps Order. The Court will then make a decision based on what it believes to be in the child’s best interests.
What happens if parents disagree on child care issues?
Should parents be unable to agree on certain aspects of their child’s life, then it is worth considering family mediation. This aims to resolve a dispute amicably.
If mediation is unsuccessful, you may have to apply to the Court for a Specific Issue Order or Prohibited Steps Order. In doing so, you are asking the Court to resolve the disputed issue for you. The Court will make a final decision based on the child’s best interests.
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When can parental responsibility be removed?
Most people enquire about how to obtain parental responsibility. But what if you want to terminate the other person’s responsibility? This question typically arises where one parent has become estranged from the child, or poses a threat to the child’s welfare.
Parental responsibility can only be terminated by the court. This usually only happens if a child is adopted or the father’s behaviour warrants the removal of parental responsibility.
However, there have only been three cases dealing with the latter issue since the Children Act 1989 was passed.
The circumstances must be exceptional for a court to terminate parental responsibility. The reported cases are as follows.
In 1995, a father who had been afforded parental responsibility by entering into a formal agreement had his parental responsibility terminated by the court when he was sent to prison for having caused a child serious injury. The court in that case concluded that the father had forfeited his parental responsibility and that it would never have granted parental responsibility if an application had been made.
In 2013, a father’s parental responsibility for his son was terminated following his conviction for sexual abuse of his son’s step-sisters. The court was of the opinion that whilst there had been a commitment and attachment between father and son whilst in the same household, this had been undermined by the father’s abuse of the step-sisters. No contact had taken place between the father and son during the imprisonment and the son had expressed a wish to have no further involvement with his father. The child’s initial needs and risk of harm of him in the future, coupled with the strain on the mother to provide the father with information about the child as a result of his parental responsibility, against the child’s wishes, led the court to conclude that his parental responsibility should be terminated.
In another case also in 2013, the father had committed numerous violent related offences including against the mother leaving her with lasting effects. The child, who had complex needs, had witnessed the father’s violence against the mother. At that hearing the father was serving a term of imprisonment for GBH and chose not to participate in those proceedings, except to write to the court to say that he did not oppose the mother’s applications which included an order terminating his parental responsibility. The court determined that the father had shown a lack of commitment to the child, and his interest lay principally in controlling the mother.
What about married fathers?
The law does not enable a court to remove parental responsibility from a father who was married to the mother. However, it can make orders which limit the father’s exercise of his parental responsibility if this is considered necessary to protect the child’s welfare.