Published on December 7, 2023

The term ‘Parental Responsibility’ is defined at s3(1) of the Children Act 1989, as ‘meaning 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 is automatically given to the mother of a child (at birth), and is held by the father of the child if he was married to the mother at the time of the birth, or in the case of unmarried fathers, if named on the birth certificate, by agreement with the mother (a ‘parental responsibility agreement’), or by order of the court.

It can be held by more than one person at the same time, and can also be conferred on married (or civil partners) step-parents, either by the one parent who already has it, or where there are two parents, by their agreement. A step-parent can also apply to the court for parental responsibility for a child. A second female parent can also make an application for Parental Responsibility.

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When considering an application for Parental Responsibility, the court will consider factors such as why the application is being made, whether the applicant can demonstrate an appropriate level of commitment to the child, and the level of attachment between the parent and the child.

It can also be given to a guardian of a child if no other person has it in relation to that child. Further, if a child is subject to either an emergency protection order, interim care order, final care order or placement order, then children’s services within the local authority for that particular child with also have Parental Responsibility.

Parental Responsibility can only be removed by the court, however this happens only in exceptionally rare circumstances.

The exercise of Parental Responsibility in practice

Any and all important decisions relating to a child must be made jointly with the participation of all holders of Parental Responsibility, or at the very least all holders should be given the opportunity to participate.

Examples of important decisions are decisions relating to: a child’s health, education, and religion, and decisions such as whether the child can travel abroad on holiday, relocate with one parent whether domestically or internationally, or accessing medical records.

If a dispute arises between parents relating to a decision which falls within the exercise of joint Parental Responsibility, for example which school a child should attend, whether they can travel abroad, or where the child will live, and no agreement can be reached, an application can made to the court, and a judge will make the decision.

Day to day decisions do not however have to be agreed between all holders of Parental Responsibility. The parent with whom the child lives can make those decisions without reference to the other, and where children live with each parent for significant periods of time, then each parent can make decisions about the child during their time with them.

Some decisions require only the consent of one holder of Parental Responsibility, for example consent for a school trip.

As part of the exercise of their Parental Responsibility, parents can also divest it in others for short periods of time. Examples of this are leaving children in the care of nannies, babysitters or family members.

What Parental Responsibility does not mean

Parental Responsibility should not be confused with child arrangements, ie when a child lives with and spends time with either parent. Regardless of the arrangements for a child’s care, if both parents hold Parental Responsibility for a child, they still both need to be consulted about important decisions, even if in practice the child very rarely spends time with one of the parents, whether directly or indirectly.

Further, an application to remove a parent’s Parental Responsibility should not be considered simply as a mechanism to either reduce their time with the child or allow the other parent to make unilateral decisions concerning the child. These applications will only be successful in exceptional circumstances, and if the court considers that it is in the best interests of a child to do so.

Parental Responsibility is also not the only factor the Child Maintenance Service will look at when assessing whether a non-resident parent has a financial obligation towards a child, for example if a DNA test confirms parentage, an application for child support could be made in the absence of Parental Responsibility. Conversely, an obligation to pay child support for a child does not confer Parental responsibility.

You may find these articles useful reading; How Should I Co-parent With My Ex Partner? and What Does It Mean To Put Your Children First’.

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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