Parental responsibility is defined in the Children Act 1989 as follows:-
“All the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.”
This is clearly wide in scope. In practice it includes things such as:-
- Access to medical records and consent to treatment;
- Access to school reports;
- Which school a child attends;
- Educating the child in his or her culture or religion;
- Feeding and clothing the child;
- Giving accommodation.
The nature of the responsibility may change over time. An interesting example is the Gillick case where the Court had ruled that a girl in her teenage years might be prescribed the pill without the knowledge or consent of the parent.
It is possible for more than one person to have parental responsibility. If the parent cannot agree the Court can make an Order. It may be that the parent with day to day care of the child would delegate parental responsibility when the other parent takes the child away on holiday.
There are some decisions which cannot be made only by one person who has parental responsibility. An issue of this nature could for example arise in the case where one parent wishes a boy to be circumcised but the other does not.
Someone who does not have actual parental responsibility but has care for a child (such as a step parent) may in certain circumstances act in a way which is reasonably in the interests of the child’s welfare.
Automatic parental responsibility
A mother automatically has parental responsibility. In the case of the father automatic parental responsibility arises if he was married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth or marries her at a later stage. Since December 2003 unmarried fathers automatically obtain parental responsibility if they are named on their child’s Birth Certificate at the time the birth is registered or re-registered. This requires the mother’s consent.
If the mother does not consent to the father having parental responsibility the father can apply to the Court which will consider the father’s commitment to the child and his reasons for applying for parental responsibility. In almost all cases, unless there are allegations of risk of harm to the child, the court will grant parental responsibility.
Removal of parental responsibility by the Court
Parental responsibility will end automatically once the child reaches the age of 18. The Court may also order the removal of parental responsibility if it is in the interests of the child’s welfare. Anyone who has parental responsibility can make such an application; so can the child if they have sufficient understanding and age. An example of discharge of parental responsibility might be where there is a history of domestic abuse and breach of a Non-Molestation Order, or a conviction for sexual abuse.
The Court will not set aside parental responsibility lightly.
Some non-biological parents may have parental responsibility
The law allows for various people to have parental responsibility such as step parents, doctors, guardians and local authorities.
A step-parent can acquire parental responsibility with the agreement of those who have parental responsibility.
Even where the step parent does not have parental responsibility they have to act in a way which is reasonable to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child.
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