From when a child is born, the mother has full rights and responsibilities to protect and bring the child up. This is known as “Parental Responsibility” (PR). A father will have the same rights and responsibilities or PR if their name is on the child’s birth certificate where the child is born after 1 December 2003 or if they are married to the mother at the date of conception or birth. The same rights apply to those in a civil partnership. In addition, he may be given PR by the mother signing a PR agreement, or by the court granting a PR order. A stepparent may also be given PR by a biological parent.

PR is not defined in the Children Act 1989, beyond the rights and responsibilities of a parent, but in theory extends to having a say in every aspect of a child’s upbringing, including medical treatment, their religion and their schooling.

Control over Removal from England & Wales, Change of Name & Adoption
In England, more than 40% of children are born to cohabiting couples, and therefore it is in many cases that a couple may not be married when the woman becomes pregnant. Sometimes the relationship does not survive the pregnancy, and the parents are no longer together at the child’s birth or soon after that. If the father is on the birth certificate, as set out above, his consent must be sought if the mother wants to move with the child to another country. If the mother does not do this, then she is committing the crime of child abduction, and she risks not only having to return with the child, but also imprisonment. The father’s permission must be obtained to change a child’s name. What happens in practice though is that many fathers only find out about these things after the event, when it’s too late. These are the fathers without regular contact (access/visitation) to their children, through their own wishes, or the mother’s resistance to contact. A court will not order a child’s return to another country if they have been there for a while and settled there, nor will a judge demand that a child revert to a birth name where the new name has been in usage for some time. It is even good practice for mothers to involve fathers in these events where they do not have PR, but perhaps understandably the mother do not wish to overcomplicate matters, particularly if the natural father has no contact to the child, and she has a new partner who fulfils that role.

Adoption is treated differently by the courts. This is due to the fact that the judge in these proceedings is looking to sever permanently the legal relationship between parent and child, and the court has a duty to investigate the facts and ensure that this is in the child’s best interests. An order allowing another man to take the father’s place is more likely to be made if there has been little or no commitment to a relationship shown by the natural father to their child, but the judge must consider the father’s right to be involved in the child’s life, whether he has PR or not.

Child Support & Maintenance
One of the well-documented responsibilities is a father’s right, and duty, to provide the mother with an appropriate amount of financial support for his child. This is a factor both for couples who remain together and who are separated. A lesser known fact about financial support is that it is viewed as a separate aspect to contact rights and so falling behind on child support, if you are no longer together with your partner, will not impact the time you spend with your child. The courts do not like to link money and contact, but the child support legislation has introduced this, much to the unhappiness of family law practitioners and judges. Therefore the more time a father spends with his child, as long as it is over one night’s stay a week, the less he pays in child maintenance. There can be a significant difference, and this has led, inevitably to court disputes between parents, ostensibly about contact, but in reality about a mother or father seeking to control payments for the child.

A Relationship
Most people understand that a father has every right to see their child, although in fact the Children Act states that it is the child’s right to have a relationship with both parents, and this right is only rarely denied by the court, and for good reason. Still about 50% of fathers lose contact with their children after divorce.

A father’s rights exist, but whether they are exercised depends on his willingness to commit time and effort in order to maintain a relationship and be a responsible parent. In a court of law, many people believe that the court will side with the mother due to her biological connection with the child, but the court will always decide what is in the best interest of the child as a first consideration.

If this article has posed some questions for your particular circumstances please do contact us on 0845 658 6639 or by email at

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© Punam Denley, October 2012

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