I wrote a blog a few weeks ago when, I explored the options available to couples whose weddings had been delayed due to the first lockdown, and with lockdown 2 now upon us and weddings once again out of the question until at least 2nd December, it is important to be aware of the lesser known impacts a delay in getting married can have.
Namely, the risk that any children you have, while unmarried, can be biologically yours without you acquiring ‘parental responsibility’ or equal rights to be consulted on important life decisions about them.
Firstly – what IS parental responsibility?
Broadly speaking, parental responsibility (referred to as ‘PR’) is the legal right of a parent to make decisions relating to a child’s health, education or welfare. For example, issues such as undergoing medical treatment, changing a child’s name or removal from the country long-term all require the consent of all parties with PR, and as such lacking PR makes it much more difficult to oppose such decisions.
PR also gives the ability to apply for a child arrangements order regarding arrangements for your time with the child (previously known as residence and contact orders). A natural father can still make such an application without PR, but other people without PR may need the Court’s permission to do so.
This is particularly relevant for grandparents, who do not have parental responsibility in their own right, and so may need permission to make an application regarding their grandchildren.
To apply for PR you must be ‘connected’ to the child as a blood relation, step parent or second female parent, and more than two people can have PR at the same time (for example, grandparents may obtain PR as well as both parents).
So who has parental responsibility?
It’s not something commonly spoken about, so some people may not be aware there is an issue until it is too late.
Mother’s automatically gain parental responsibility for a child they have carried and given birth to it themselves, meaning issues only arise for mothers where, for example, a surrogate has been used.
Fathers, on the other hand need to actively ensure their rights are protected, as they can only obtain parental responsibility if:
- They are married to the mother when the child is born;
- They are named on the child’s birth certificate (which should now apply to all children, as it has applied to all children born after 2003);
- Mother agrees to add them to the birth certificate later; or
- They obtain a Court order awarding them parental responsibility via a ‘declaration of parentage’.
Many father’s may not think much of this, particularly if there are doubts over paternity or the mother cuts them out of the pregnancy process, but it is important in case father wants to be involved at a later stage.
It is also worth noting that if you are a step-parent, you can apply for a declaration of PR for your stepchildren, provided you have the permission of all other’s with parental responsibility.
I’m not too concerned – my partner would never object to me having rights to our child…
Everyone goes into a relationship optimistically, with the intention that it will last forever. Unfortunately, in my line of work I am almost always dealing with people whose relationship hasn’t worked, and the issues this raises, which is why I caution against this approach.
While trust is a wonderful thing to have in your partner/co-parent, people are rarely in an amicable mindset once a relationship breaks down, and your partner may be influenced later by family, a new partner, or unexpected events.
The most harrowing example I have heard involved an unmarried father prevented from taking his new-born home after the mother had died in childbirth, as he didn’t have PR and couldn’t obtain it without the mother, so social services had to step in until he could make an emergency application to Court. Cases like this are rare, but important to keep in mind as few people are aware of the risk.
My ex-partner is refusing to allow me parental responsibility, what do I do?
Firstly, seek some advice from a family lawyer – we can often advise on ways to negotiate or discuss and agree matters without involving the Court, for example through mediation.
If you absolutely need to ask the Court to step in, be mindful that there will be a cost involved in this. The Court fee alone for an application for parental responsibility is £215 which can be a considerable cost for most people, and solicitor’s costs on top of this can run into the thousands if the application is contested.
Keep in mind though that you will need to persuade the Court it is in the child’s best interests for you to be awarded PR, and by nature, Court proceedings are adversarial and can lead to tension between parents. Where you have many years of co-parenting ahead of you, filled with graduations, weddings, and other events you will no doubt have to attend together, the more amicable a footing you can start on, the better.
Overall, think carefully about your parental rights if you are unmarried and expecting a child, or if you help to care for a child you don’t currently have PR for (for example, if you are a step-parent or grandparent). If in doubt, speak to a solicitor who can not only make you aware of options, but can also give you a steer towards sensible ways to discuss any issues.
Beth Courtney-Walker, Solicitor, Family Department
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