Parental rights and responsibilities

Unlike mothers, fathers do not always have ‘parental responsibility’ for their children. With more than one in three children now born outside marriage, some parents may be unclear about who has legal parental responsibility for their children.

What is parental responsibility?

While the law does not define in detail what parental responsibility is, the following lists some key roles:

  • providing a home for the child
  • protecting and maintaining the child
  • disciplining
  • choosing and providing for the child’s education
  • determining religion and its teaching
  • agreeing to the child’s medical treatment
  • naming and agreeing to any change of the child’s name
  • accompanying the child outside the UK and agreeing to the child’s emigration, should the issue arise
  • being responsible for the child’s property
  • appointing a guardian for the child, if necessary
  • allowing confidential information about the child to be disclosed.

When a non-resident parent has parental responsibility, it doesn’t give them an absolute right to have contact with the child. Also, the resident parent doesn’t have to consult the other parent on a day-to-day basis about the child’s upbringing. However, the resident parent is expected to keep the non-resident parent informed about the child’s well-being and general progress.

Who has parental responsibility?

A mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth. However, the conditions for fathers gaining parental responsibility varies throughout the UK.

For births registered in England and Wales

In England and Wales, if the parents of a child are married to each other at the time of the birth, or if they have jointly adopted a child, then they both have parental responsibility. Parents do not lose parental responsibility if they divorce, regardless of where the child lives.

This is not automatically the case for unmarried parents. According to current law, an unmarried father has parental responsibility only if he is married to the mother when the child is born or has acquired legal responsibility via:

  • jointly registering the birth of the child with the mother provided the child is registered after 1 December 2003
  • by a parental responsibility agreement with the mother
  • by a parental responsibility order, made by a court
  • by marrying the mother of the child.

Living with the mother, even for a long time, does not give a father parental responsibility.

Applying to the courts for parental responsibility

A father can apply to the court to gain parental responsibility. In considering an application from a father, the court will take the following into account:

  • the degree of commitment shown by the father to his child
  • the degree of attachment between father and child
  • the father’s reasons for applying for the order.

The court will then decide whether to accept or reject the application based on what it believes is in the child’s best interest.

Step parents and parental responsibility

Introduced into law in 2002, it is now possible for step parents to acquire parental responsibility for their step children.  Prior to this, the only way was via adoption.  Whilst adoption is still available to step parents, this alternative mechanism was introduced to simplify the process. Parental responsibility can now be acquired in the same way an unmarried father would apply.  The main requirement however is that the step parent is married to or is the civil partner of one parent.

In situations where parents find themselves in dispute over important issues relating to their children, such as which school their children should attend, which religion they should follow or which surname they should take, it is possible to apply to court for a Specific Issue Order.

What is a Specific Issue Order?

The court will work in the best interest of your child and put his or her needs first. It will issue a Specific Issue Order giving direction in the following areas:

  • to determine where a child should be educated
  • to determine issues of religion
  • to determine issues of medical treatment.

A Specific Issue Order may last for as long as the court directs it to, but will not be enforceable after the child has reached 16 years of age, unless it is satisfied that the circumstances of the case are exceptional.

In many cases when parents separate, the living arrangements for the children can be agreed amicably. In some cases, however, significant disputes arise in relation to where the children should live. In these types of situations consideration must be given to what is in the best interests of the children. Often, parents find that they must make an application to court when no agreement can be reached. At DS Legal our experts can guide parents through this process, offering advice every step of the way.

The court can make a residence order

A residence order is an order of the court settling any necessary living arrangements for the child. In addition, it automatically gives parental responsibility to any person in whose favour it is made.

There will only be one residence order at any one time with respect to any child.  The order may be quite detailed and may be subject to directions or conditions imposed by the court. The order may name more than one person with whom the child should live but who do not themselves live together.

A residence order:-

  • settles the practical arrangements for the accommodation of the child
  • vests parental responsibility in the holder of the residence order
  • may contain directions or conditions
  • allows the curt to make an order for financial relief
  • carries automatic restrictions concerning changing the child’s name and removing the child from the UK
  • discharges any pre-existing care order.

A residence order will only remain in effect until the child has reached 16 years of age, unless the court is satisfied that the circumstances of the case are exceptional.

Shared residence arrangements

Many parents now agree on shared residence arrangement. Shared residence is a legal status which recognises that, after parental separation, the children have a home with both parents. Research shows that children fare best when both parents are substantially involved in their children’s day-to-day care.Today most judges recognise the importance of shared parenting and are far more likely to award shared residence orders than in previous years.


As with all matters we will assess your eligibility for legal aid first. In the event that you are not eligible we will look to see if we can provide you with a fixed fee package depending upon your circumstances and if all else fails we will provide you with a competitive hourly rate which we will seek to reduce from our standard rate (please see our terms and conditions)

Can we help you?

If you would like to discuss parental rights and responsibilities, then please do not hesitate to call  Mark on 01242 517949, 01792 892692 or 01993 220651. Alternatively, please email us at We’re here to help.

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