What is parental responsibility and how do I get it?

  |   Events, Latest News

The concept of “parental responsibility” may sound like a very simple idea, but it is actually a surprisingly complicated legal term.


S.3(1) Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”. This is clearly a very wide and quite a vague definition, so it is sometimes very difficult to know what comes under the heading of “parental responsibility” and what does not.


It is generally helpful to think of parental responsibility as “decision making”. If you think about all of the important decisions that parents have to take about their children, those will normally be decisions that only a person with parental responsibility can take, for example:


  • Choosing the child’s name
  • Where the child should live
  • Where the child should go to school
  • Whether the child should have medical treatment
  • Deciding whether the child should follow a religion
  • Allowing the child to leave the country


A person with parental responsibility will also be responsible for taking care of the child’s property, disciplining them and can also act on their behalf in any legal proceedings.


If two people with parental responsibility live separately, most decisions can be taken on a day-to-day basis by them on their own, without having to ask the other person first. However, some of the very big, important decisions require both of the people to agree. If there is a disagreement, sometimes a court will have to make the decision.


Having parental responsibility does not mean that you have any “rights” over a child. There is no such thing as a right to be able to see a child, or to have them live with you. Equally, even if you do not legally have parental responsibility, that does not mean that you do not still have moral responsibilities and obligations to look after your children properly, or to make a financial contribution if you do not live with your child.


So who has got parental responsibility for a child? This might seem like a question with a very obvious answer – “the child’s parents” – but that is not necessarily the case, particularly where the parents are not married. Many different people can also obtain parental responsibility, even if they are not the parents.


You can obtain parental responsibility in the following ways:


  • If you are the Mother of the child, you will automatically always have parental responsibility
  • If you are the Father and were married to the child’s Mother at the time of its birth
  • If you are an unmarried Father but are named on the birth certificate after 1st December 2003, or have been named on a re-registered birth certificate since that date
  • If you are the Father and you make a “parental responsibility agreement” with the Mother
  • If you are the Father and you obtain a “parental responsibility order” from the court
  • If you have a Child Arrangements Order (or an old Residence Order) which says that the child lives with you
  • If you have a Child Arrangements Order which says that a child will spend time with you, and the court agrees that you should have parental responsibility
  • If you are the child’s step-parent and all of the other people with parental responsibility agree that you can have it, or if the court orders it
  • If you are the female partner of the child’s Mother in certain circumstances of artificial insemination, and you are either registered as the child’s parent, or have a parental responsibility agreement or an order
  • If you are appointed as a child’s guardian when their parents die
  • If you are the child’s Special Guardian
  • If you adopt a child


As you can see, there are many different circumstances in which a person can obtain parental responsibility for a child. The law is quite complicated and you may wish to seek legal advice if you believe that you should have parental responsibility, or if you are in dispute with another person about a decision which you have to make about your child.


Several organisations have produced more detailed factsheets about parental responsibility which you may wish to read:


Coram Children’s Legal Centre


Family Rights Group