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Focus on: parental responsibility
Parental responsibility is really important, and whether or not a person has parental responsibility for a child may have a big impact on how decisions are made regarding that child. As well as legal and technical considerations, having parental responsibility is a significant emotional status. In this piece, we take a look at parental responsibility in detail and consider some of the situations in which the concept is relevant.
Getting parental responsibility
Let’s just remind ourselves about who has parental responsibility and how those who do not can acquire it.
All birth mothers have parental responsibility for their children. Fathers who are married to the mother at the time of the birth have automatic parental responsibility too. Parental responsibility will also be held by same sex and opposite sex couples undergoing assisted reproduction together, regardless of the genetic relationship between the adults and the child to be, provided certain conditions are met.
Unmarried biological fathers do not automatically have parental responsibility for their children. However, if the birth is registered (or re-registered) after 1 December 2003 and the name of the father is included in the registration, the father will hold parental responsibility. If this is not possible, the mother can enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the father, or, in the absence of agreement, the court can make a parental responsibility order. If an unmarried father later marries the mother of his child, he will acquire parental responsibility.
Adoptive parents, special guardians, guardians appointed in a will and persons who become parents following the successful implementation of a surrogacy arrangement will have parental responsibility for the relevant children. There are also circumstances in which a step-parent can acquire parental responsibility.
Finally, a person (whether or not a parent) will obtain parental responsibility for a child if they are named as a person with whom the child is to live (whether or not full-time) within a child arrangements order. This used to be called a residence order.
Situations in which parental responsibility really matters
According to the Children Act 1989, having parental responsibility for a child confers upon a person 'all the rights, duties, powers, responsibility and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property'. That is a very wide concept encompassing everything from little decisions a parent will make throughout the day about what the child will eat, to making sure they are safe and well, to major, life-altering choices parents may face.
Parental responsibility can be exercised day to day by a parent without having to consult the other (or any other person who holds parental responsibility) on every decision; that would just not be practical. However, while there is no definitive list of situations in which all persons with parental responsibility must be in agreement, some major ones include: consent to certain medical treatments, choice of school, choice of religion, and causing the child to be known by a different surname. When there is a dispute over such issues that cannot be resolved between the holders of parental responsibility (usually the parents), the court may have to make an order deciding the matter (generally a specific issue or prohibited steps order).
No one can take a child out of the UK without the permission of all persons with parental responsibility unless they have a court order allowing this. If a person goes ahead and takes the child without the right permissions, they may be committing a criminal offence. There is an exception to this when a person has a child arrangements order stating that the child is to live with them. In this case, that person can take the child out of the country for less than one month without permission. If a longer trip or permanent move out of the country is planned, all persons with parental responsibility must be in agreement, failing which the court will have to decide whether the plan is in the child’s best interests.
Particularly where unmarried fathers are concerned, having (or not having) parental responsibility can make a real difference to a person’s legal status as a decision-maker. It is also an important expression of their significance in the life of a child.