A short guide to parental responsibility

27 March 2012

Many parents may have heard the term parental responsibility but are unaware as to what it actually means. The law is complicated so people often don’t find out about their rights and responsibilities until there is some sort of crisis. OnePlusOne aims to raise awareness of this by giving simple clear facts on legal issues associated with getting married, cohabiting and family life.

Parental responsibility is the term used to describe the legal duty that a parent has to their child. While biological mothers automatically have parental responsibility, not all biological fathers do. Those who are not automatically given parental responsibility need to apply for it or risk losing their say in how their child is raised.

Having parental responsibility gives a father the right to contribute to decision making regarding his child’s future. This includes having a say in how they are brought up, being able to give consent regarding medical treatment, and on their religious upbringing and what school they go to. Fathers with parental responsibility also have greater powers in whether the child is taken out of the country. The key rights and responsibilities include:

  • providing a home for the child
  • having contact with and living with the child
  • protecting and maintaining the child
  • disciplining the child
  • choosing and providing for the child’s education
  • determining the religion of the child
  • agreeing to the child’s medical treatment
  • naming the child 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

Fathers who do not have parental responsibility still have to pay child maintenance. Having parental responsibility also does not give someone greater powers over the other parent of the child.

Who gets parental responsibility automatically?

Parental responsibility is automatically granted to biological mothers. Biological fathers who are married to the mother at the time the child was born also have it.  Adoptive parents who jointly adopt a child both have parental responsibility.

Neither parent loses parental responsibility through divorce.

Living with the mother, regardless of length of time, does not give a biological father parental responsibility if they were not married at the time of birth. Also, if the mother dies and she was not married to the father, parental responsibility does not always pass to him.

Biological fathers of children born after 1st December 2003 in England and Wales who are named on the birth certificate also have parental responsibility. The law varies slightly for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Visit the Directgov website for detailed information on parental responsibility in each country.


Applying for parental responsibility

  • If the mother agrees, both father and mother can sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement form. These are available from the local county court or downloadable from the Court Service website.
  • If the mother does not agree, a father can apply for a parental responsibility order from the court. In considering an application from a father, the court will take 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 to accept or reject the application based on what it thinks is in the best interests of the child.
For more general advice for separating parents visit theParentConnection.