Who’s the Daddy?? Parental Responsibility: What Is It? Do I have it? How Can I Get It?

This one is for readers in the UK only.

Most men will become a father at some point. You might have children now. If not, there is a reasonable chance that you may have them in the future. That being the case, this post tells you some stuff you really ought to know.

Long ago (in a galaxy far away) a group of clever lawyers sat down to have a fundamental re-think about the law as it applies to children and their parents.  One of the ideas was to try to get people thinking in terms of their responsibilities and duties towards children.  There was at the time (as now) a growing concern that a lot of people were just not taking their responsibilities seriously.  Feckless fathers dipping into their children’s lives when it suited them, failing to pay any money to the child’s mother and generally setting a jolly poor example to the hapless child.  A lot of these children came from unmarried parents! Shock, horror.  Cue ‘Daily Mail’ headlines. Well, back in those days there were no Polish migrants for that particular ‘news’paper to get hysterical about..

Joking aside, these were serious issues that the legislators wanted to try to address.  Until this point (the late 1980s) the law in relation to children was couched in very much rights based language.  You had ‘custody, care and control’ of a child and the other parent might get (if he was lucky) ‘Access’.  All of this sort of implied that the child was a possession over which the parents had rights.  Interestingly, although over two decades have gone by since the Act came into force in October 1991 it is still common to hear people talking about ‘custody’ and ‘access’, both of which are now obsolete terms which have no meaning in law.

The result of these discussions, wide consultations and careful drafting was The Children Act 1989.  This was a comprehensive re-framing of the law concerning children in the UK.  ‘Custody’ was replaced with ‘Residence’ – a subtle but significant difference.  ‘Access’ was replaced with ‘Contact’ – again a subtle shift of emphasis. Incidentally, the terminology has changed yet again and the Courts now make ‘Child Arrangement Orders’ which cover what was previously contact and residence

Central to the idea of a shift towards responsibility towards the child was Parental Responsibility.  Section 3 of the Act defines Parental Responsibility (‘PR’ for shorthand) as ‘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’.  And that’s about it.  The Act doesn’t go any further in explaining exactly what those rights and responsibilities are.  The courts have had a go at defining it over the years and there is now a lot of judicial guidance about the extent of PR but it isn’t exhaustive by any means.

So What Actually Is It Then?

Well, it’s probably what you expect.  If you have parental responsibility for a child you are entitled to make decisions for them when they are young and unable to make those decisions for themselves.  You have a duty to keep them safe, to make sure that their physical and emotional needs are being met.  You have a duty to ensure that they attend school, receive any necessary medical treatment and so on.  You do have rights to help you meet your responsibilities and this includes the right to choose where they go to school, to make decisions on their behalf until they can do so themselves and so on and on.

What Isn’t It?

Crucially, PR is not the right to throw your weight around and dictate to the other parent.  Yes, it does give the authority to make decisions for a child but the ideal is that there should be a partnership between those who have PR.  Having parental responsibility for a child should be regarded as a privilege to help you be an effective and child-focussed parent.  Please don’t be like one of those parents I mentioned earlier.

Does It Work?

So has this worked?  Are people thinking more in terms of their responsibilities to their child than their rights?  Well, I really can’t see it myself.  Of course, a family lawyer doesn’t see the successful families, the ones who realise that they must pull together to jointly parent their child.  The ones that the lawyers see are still, depressingly, often treating the child like a dolly or a football that they might let the other parent see/go on holiday with/have for Christmas if they toe the line and do what they want.  There are still feckless fathers who couldn’t care less and mothers who cannot or will not understand that their child would benefit from the fathers involvement in their life.  People still, commonly, talk about ‘custody’ and ‘access’ so the language, in nothing else, stubbornly refuses to change.

I think that this is not just an example of clinging to certain terms through common usage.  I think it shows a genuine mindset, among many, that what is at stake is their ‘Rights’.

Have I got PR??

The child’s mother always has Parental Responsibility.

If you are the father you will have PR if you are married to the child’s mother, or were married at the time of the child’s birth you have PR.  You also have PR if you were registered as the father on the child’s birth certificate (after 1 December 2003).  If you don’t have PR (as a father) you can get it by entering into a formal agreement with the mother.  There is a prescribed form for this which you can get from your local combined court centre or, better yet, downloading from here:

www.hmctsformfinder.justice.gov.uk/HMCTS/GetForm.do?court_forms_id=48

If agreement isn’t possible you’ll need to apply for a Parental Responsibility Order from the court.  If you need to apply for an order, taking professional legal advice is certainly the ‘gold standard’. You don’t need a solicitor though; it is possible to do it yourself, although many feel anxious about making an application to Court without a solicitor.

Unfortunately, there is no legal aid for the majority of family cases these days except in exceptional cases so, if you can’t afford it, you may have no choice but to go it alone. Fear not! I will be posting a basic guide to getting an application started very soon.

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