The Meaning: Parental responsibility has little to do with the day to day arrangements for a child, and everything to do with the child’s overall welfare and upbringing. Where parents share parental responsibility, they should consult one another on matters of importance relating to their child’s welfare. A father with parental responsibility has a more secure legal status than if he did not have parental responsibility. For example, he would be involved as of right in issues such as adoption plans, removal of the child abroad, care proceedings, and so on. A father without parental responsibility can apply to become involved in such issues but does not automatically become involved.
Parental responsibility is not lost because some other person acquires it, and more than one person can have parental responsibility for the same child at the same time. Thus, if, on a divorce, an Order is made that a child should live with a grandparent, then for the duration of that Order he or she will have parental responsibility for the child, but the mother and father will also retain their parental responsibility.
The Law: There remains a distinction between married and unmarried parents which is that at present an unmarried father does not automatically acquire parental responsibility for his child, whereas a married father does, and divorce does not result in that father losing parental responsibility. However, an unmarried father can acquire parental responsibility by he and the mother entering into a formal Parental Responsibility Agreement, or by the father making a successful application to the Court for a Parental Responsibility Order, or by virtue of the father being registered as the child’s father on the child’s birth certificate if such registration took place after 1 December 2003. If a father obtains an Order that the child should live with him, then the Court must also make a Parental Responsibility Order in his favour if he does not already have parental responsibility. Where a father applies to the Court for a Parental Responsibility Order, the decided cases suggest that, where a father has a commitment to his child, a sufficient amount of contact or involvement with the child, and where his motives in applying for parental responsibility are genuine, then it is likely that he will be granted parental responsibility. Even if a father does not have parental responsibility for a child, he can still make applications to the Court to deal with issues relating to that child.
When making a Child Arrangements Order setting out the arrangements for a child to spend time with a parent, then the Court must decide whether that parent should also have parental responsibility if the parent concerned does not already have it.
There may be circumstances in which parental responsibility is relevant to step-parents and other third parties. We will discuss these issues if they become relevant in any particular case.
The detail above relates to Private Law issues arising between parents and step-parents of children. They do not relate to Public Law Child Care proceedings involving Social Services and other parties. Entirely different provisions relate to such matters, and will be discussed separately if they arise.
The Essex Family Courts have issued guidelines which give information as to the sort of things a Court will be looking for in any Court application relating to the arrangements for children. A copy of this PDF can be downloaded by clicking here.