Are all parental responsibilities equal?

Parental Responsibility covers the “rights, duties, responsibilities and authority” of a parent. The pandemic has raised some challenging questions as separated parents wrestle with opposing ideas about what is in their child’s best interests.

  • Perhaps one parent is an essential worker and needs the child to attend school during the lockdown whereas the other parent thinks that this exposes the child or other family members to unnecessary or excessive risk of contracting the virus.
  • Or perhaps one parent is keen for the whole family to be vaccinated but the other parent holds a different view about getting the vaccine.
  • Or perhaps the parents are fundamentally at odds about how much screen time their children should have during the lockdown.

How can opposing views be reconciled and who gets to decide if they can’t?

The law generally provides that each person with parental responsibility can exercise that responsibility alone without obtaining the consent of the other (or others) with parental responsibility or even consulting them. There is also no hierarchy among those with parental responsibility e.g. there is no preference given to mothers over fathers or the parent with whom the child predominantly lives with over the parent with whom the child spends time. A child might spend one part of their week eating meat and playing X Box for hours and then go to the other parent where veganism and books at bedtime are the customary routine.

If one parent strongly opposes certain activities, he or she could apply for a Prohibited Steps Order to prevent the other parent from doing this but ultimately without such an order, each parent is free to raise the child how they see fit. The law discourages parents from interfering in the day-to-day parenting of the other as far as possible.

There are of course some notable restrictions to the independent exercise of parental responsibility where the decision is deemed to be of fundamental importance to the child and irreversible, for example:

      • long term decisions over education
      • changing the child’s surname
      • having medical treatment

In those cases, there is a duty to consult the other parent and to obtain their consent prior to taking the proposed action. If the parents cannot agree, the opposing parent will have the opportunity to bring legal proceedings to try to prevent the other parent from acting. In such a case the primary consideration of the Courts will be the welfare of the child, not the strength of the views of the parent.
In reality, whether there is co-operative or independent parenting will depend on the relationship and personality of the parents.

Who has parental responsibility?

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility although the situation is slightly more complex for fathers. If a father was married to the mother at the time of the birth, or subsequently married the mother, they will also have parental responsibility. If the parents are not married, but the father is named on the child’s birth certificate and the child was born after 31 December 2003, the father will have parental responsibility.

If a father does not have parental responsibility, he can acquire it by entering into an agreement with the mother or if it is not possible for an agreement to be reached, by asking the court to make an order that he should have parental responsibility. The court will consider the level of involvement that the father has had with a child, his commitment to the child and his motivation for asking for the order.

It is also possible for step-parents or civil partners to acquire parental responsibility.

If you are unsure about whether you have to consult other people about a decision relating to your child or are struggling with the parenting decisions of a co-parent, contact Helen Handley or call on 01803 403403.