The concept of Parental Responsibility was introduced by the Children Act 1989 and replaces the old idea of one or both parents having custody of a child. Parental Responsibility changes the emphasis of rights over children to a parent’s responsibility for their children.

Parental Responsibility is defined in the Children Act as:

‘All the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities which a parent has for a child’

Having Parental Responsibility therefore involves making decisions concerning your child, providing a home, feeding and clothing, providing protection and security, ensuring that the child receives a satisfactory education, consenting to medical treatment and marriage before 18, agreeing any change of name or religion, and generally all the important things in a child’s life.

Mothers always have parental responsibility. Fathers have automatic parental responsibility if they were married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth, but not otherwise.

An unmarried father may however acquire parental responsibility by:

  • Being registered as the child’s father at birth, so long as registration took place after 1 December 2003.
  • Entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother
  • Applying for and obtaining a child arrangements order or a parental responsibility Order from the Court
  • Being appointed the child’s guardian; but only once that appointment takes effect
  • Marrying the child’s mother

Where two or more persons have Parental Responsibility, each may (in most but not all matters) exercise their Parental Responsibility independently without the consent of the other parent or person with Parental Responsibility. If agreement cannot be reached about an aspect of the child’s upbringing, then the court can be asked to intervene and decide the matter and make a Specific Issues Order. Both parents written agreement (or permission from the Court) must always be obtained before a child’s surname can be changed or the child removed permanently from England and Wales.

Not having parental responsibility will not relieve a father of his obligation to maintain his child and pay maintenance.

A person with parental responsibility may not surrender, give up or transfer any part of their parental responsibility and it will only be lost if the child is adopted.

A special guardian may exercise parental responsibility to the exclusion of others with parental responsibility, such as the birth parents, and without needing to consult them in all but a few circumstances.

Where the parent or parents with Parental Responsibility agree, parental responsibility for a child can be shared with another by way of entering into and registering a Parental Responsibility Agreement. If agreement is not possible, an application for a parental responsibility order must be made to the Court.

A step-parent who is either the spouse or civil partner of a parent who has parental responsibility may therefore acquire parental responsibility by:

  • Making a Step Parent Parental Responsibility Agreement with all parents with parental responsibility
  • Obtaining a  Parental Responsibility Order from the court;
  • Adopting the child.