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Who has parental responsibility and what does it mean?

Families now come in all shapes and sizes, and children may live with parents who are cohabiting, married, separated or divorced. They may be part of a step-family, live with adoptive parents, grandparents, other relatives or a special guardian.

If you have spent many years living with and developing a close bond with a child, you may be concerned that your ‘parental’ status is not formally recognised and you may worry that you could be excluded from key decisions in the future.

Linda Pope, family law expert at Miles & Partners solicitors in London explains that parental responsibility is a legal concept defined by the Children Act:  ‘It determines all the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities and authority that a parent of a child has in relation to the child and their property.’

Whoever has parental responsibility has a duty to:

  • care for the child and provide a home;
  • to ensure they receive appropriate education and medical treatment; and
  • to keep other parents with parental responsibility informed about such decisions.

In return, you have the right to be involved in decisions about the child’s name, where they live, which school they should go to, and whether the child can leave the country.

It also means that you can give permission for medical treatment and consent to the child’s marriage between the ages of 16 and 18. You can also appoint legal guardians to act in your place in your will.

‘These are all sensitive and potentially contentious issues in the event of a separation or divorce,’ explains Linda.

Who has parental responsibility?

A birth mother automatically has parental responsibility.

A child’s father only has parental responsibility if he is married to the mother or if he is named on the child’s birth certificate when the couple is not married.

Who can obtain parental responsibility?

A father without parental responsibility can obtain this by marrying the mother, negotiating a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, or applying to court for a parental responsibility order.

A female parent (who is not the birth mother) can acquire parental responsibility by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the birth mother, applying to court for a parental responsibility order or by being named in a child arrangements order.

A step-parent can also obtain parental responsibility either by agreement with the birth parents or by way of a court order.

Anyone who has the benefit of a ‘live with’ child arrangements order made by the court will acquire parental responsibility but will share this with the parents.  For example, grandparents caring for a child under a live with order share parental responsibility with the child’s parents.

Adoptive parents acquire parental responsibility when an adoption order is made, at which point the birth parents lose parental responsibility.

Anyone who has a special guardianship order in their favour in respect of a child will have parental responsibility. However, this is not shared and they are able to make decisions involving the child without the permission of the parents.

For advice on parental responsibility

If you are concerned that you might not be included in key decisions regarding a child who has been part of your family for some time, it would be wise to seek legal advice.

For a confidential discussion about acquiring parental responsibility, please contact Linda Pope in the family law team.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.