• 3 min read

What is parental responsibility and can it be removed?

Shadow of family with mother father and daughter together at park

Whilst all mothers have parental responsibility, not all fathers or same-sex partners do. For those who do have ‘parental responsibility’, the most important roles are providing a home for the child and protecting and maintaining the child. Other responsibilities include discipline, education and medical treatment. But what does the law say about parental responsibility and can it be removed?

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is defined as all the legal rights, duties, responsibility, obligations and authority that a parent has with reference to their child. If both parents have parental responsibility for the child, they must consult with each other about important decisions that need to be made concerning the child’s welfare, for example, the child’s health, education, religious upbringing and foreign travel.

Both parents have to ensure that their child is supported financially whether they have parental responsibility or not.

Who has parental responsibility?

Mothers automatically acquire parental responsibility on the birth of their child. Fathers who are married to the mother at the time of the birth also automatically acquire parental responsibility as will same-sex partners if they were civil partners at the time of fertility treatment which led to the conception of the child.

Unmarried fathers can acquire parental responsibility by being registered on the birth certificate of the child with the mother’s consent, entering into a formal parental responsibility agreement with the mother or obtaining a Court order which affords him parental responsibility. For same-sex partners who are not civil partners, the second parent can obtain parental responsibility by applying for parental responsibility if a parental agreement was made, by becoming a civil partner of the other parent and making a parental responsibility agreement or jointly registering the birth.

Can parental responsibility be removed?

Currently, the law provides that parental responsibility can only be removed in exceptional circumstances by a Court from a father who was not married to the mother or a same-sex partner who was not in a civil partnership with the mother at the time of the fertility treatment which led to the conception of the child. This ability does not extend to fathers who were married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth or same-sex partners who were in a civil partnership at the time of the fertility treatment. However, in those circumstances and if the Court considers that the child’s welfare dictates it necessary to do so, it is possible for the Court to restrict the exercise of parental responsibility.

Recent cases involving parental responsibility

In 2021, a mother was murdered by her husband. Even though serving a life sentence for the murder, the husband retained parental responsibility for the children which meant that he continued to have a say about their upbringing and issues relating to their health, education, religious upbringing and foreign travel. The mother’s family who had assumed the care of the children therefore had to seek the father’s permission to choose the school at which the children were to attend; his consent to medical treatment and to take the children out of the Country for a holiday. The only way to avoid having to involve the father in these decisions was for the family to make an application to Court for orders which would restrict the father’s parental responsibility and give them the permission to act unilaterally. 

In late 2023, a mother made an application to Court for her former husband’s parental responsibility to be removed after he had been convicted of paedophile offences against another child. The proceedings were lengthy and extremely expensive, leading the mother to have to seek financial support from her family in order to pay for legal advice and representation. Eventually the Court concluded that it was not safe for the father to be able to exercise his parental responsibility and as in the case in 2021, orders were made which heavily restricted his ability to do so.

This case garnered a lot of media interest and was picked up by Labour MP Harriet Harman who has sought an amendment to the law which has been agreed by the Lord Chancellor that married fathers who are convicted of paedophile offences will automatically lose their parental responsibility for their own children. This would therefore avoid the need for expensive litigation to protect children.

The law has yet to be changed. If you need advice about the nature and effect of parental responsibility our child law solicitors in Salisbury, Southampton, Winchester, Poole and Bournemouth are here to help. Please contact our solicitors to arrange a free initial consultation.

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