What does Parental Responsiblity mean? Read our in depth guide....


Parental Responsibility is a phrase that is often recounted by parents, but sometimes misunderstood. It is a concept introduced by the Children Act 1989 which emphasises the importance of responsibility for children, rather than rights over children.

Parental Disputes Parental responsibility

Parental Responsibility is defined in Section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 as “all of the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.

Who has Parental Responsibility?

  • A mother of a child will automatically have Parental Responsibility irrespective of her marital status.
  • A father who was married to the Mother at the time of the child’s birth.
  • After 1st December 2003, a Father who was not married to the Mother at the time of the child’s birth if his name is placed on the birth certificate.
  • A father who was not married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth and was either not named on the birth certificate or was named on the birth certificate before 1st December 2003 may acquire Parental Responsibility by entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother, or by Order of the Court. A step-parent who is married to or in a civil partnership with one of the child’s parents can acquire parental responsibility this way too.
  • There are ways that other persons including Grandparents, Guardians, the Local Authority and the Courts can also acquire Parental Responsibility.

What does Parental Responsibility mean?

The Children Act 1989 allows those who have Parental Responsibility for a child to act alone and without the other, or others, in meeting that responsibility.

However, if a particular statute requires the consent of another person, then this must be obtained in the manner prescribed. For example, the Child Abduction Act 1984 prohibits the removal of children from the United Kingdom without the consent of all those who have Parental Responsibility for the child. An exception to this requirement is automatically provided by the granting of a Residence Order which permits the person in whose favour a Residence Order has been granted to remove the child from the jurisdiction for up to 28 days without obtaining the consent of others with Parental Responsibility for the child.

Parental Responsibility has been held by the Courts in the case of R -v- Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council [2000] 1FLR942 that Parental Responsibility includes the right to decide where a child lives. However, Parental Responsibility does not directly relate to the arrangements for the parent with whom the child does not live or to see the child – i.e. contact or access.

Parental Responsibility most significantly applies to decisions in relation to a child’s education such as which school they should attend, or medical treatment and matters of culture and religion. Parents or other persons who have Parental Responsibility for a child should consult with others who have Parental Responsibility in relation to any significant decisions in the child’s life that relate to those matters. Where parents cannot agree, then one of them can apply to the Court for a Specific Issue Order to determine, for example, which school a child should attend, or a Prohibited Steps Order to prevent one parent taking steps in relation to that issue until it has been decided between the parents or by the Courts.

Parental authority and responsibility to make decisions for and on behalf of children varies according to the nature of the decision and the age of the child.

There is no set age where the law recognises that a child is competent to take a particular decision for themselves; it depends upon the particular child, maturity and understanding of the circumstances and what has to be considered, and their ability to express their own wishes.

An example

A recently reported case decided in May 2012 - Re: C [2012] EW Misc 15 9CC - shows the Court’s approach in relation to matters of Parental Responsibility. The case concerned a girl, known as C, who was 12½ years old. C wished to be baptised as a Christian but her mother did not agree to that. Both parents were Jewish, as were all 4 grandparents. Following the parents’ divorce, they agreed a shared parenting arrangement under which the children lived with each parent alternately for a week at a time.

Following the breakdown of the marriage, the Father had converted to Christianity, and for the 2 years preceding the Court’s decision, and with the agreement of the Mother, both children had attended Christian Church services with their father on the alternate Sundays that they were with their father. In the summer of 2011, C told her mother that she had come to believe in God and wished to be baptised. This resulted in the Mother issuing an application without notice to the Father for a Prohibited Steps Order, forbidding the Father from baptising, confirming, or dedicating C or her brother to the Christian faith. The matter therefore came to be decided by the Court.

The Court ordered CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) to prepare a report and speak with C. The CAFCASS Officer visited the child twice at each parent’s home and C very clearly expressed that she wished to be baptised into the Christian faith.

The Judge decided that he was satisfied that C had already reached a sufficient degree of maturity and understanding to make a properly informed decision, and on that basis, the Judge ordered that the Mother’s application for a Prohibited Steps Order in relation to the proposed baptism of C should be dismissed and a Specific Issue Order that the Father was permitted to make arrangements for the child to attend baptism classes and to present the child for baptism as soon as practicable subject to the decision of the appropriate minister that she is ready to be baptised.

The Judge also wrote a letter to the child in which he said “It has been my job to make an important decision about your future. Sometimes parents simply cannot agree on what is best for their child but they can’t both be right. Your father thinks it is right for you to be baptised as a Christian now. Your mother wants you to wait until you are older so they have asked me to decide for them. That is my job.”

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