The latest government data from the Department of Work and Pensions estimates that around 2.3 million families in the UK are classed as separated, meaning the parents are no longer together. Collectively, around 3.6 million children are thought to live in a separated family.
That same data confirms that 89% of parents responsible for the sole or day-to-day care of those children who identify as female, while 88% of non-resident parents (those not living with the child or responsible for day-to-day care) were male. This raises the question; what do parental rights mean for children whose parents have separated?
What rights does a father have in the UK?
Parental rights and responsibilities are naturally an emotive issue, especially in the immediate aftermath of a separation or divorce. With the DWP data confirming that in the vast majority of cases the children continue to reside with their mother, it can be a confusing, frustrating and worrying time for fathers worried about their ongoing rights and relationship with their child or children.
Under UK law, the mother of a child is automatically endowed with parental responsibility at birth. This is true of the father if the parents are married at that time. A father also receives automated parental responsibility jointly with his wife in the event of adoption.
If the two parents aren’t legally married, or in the event of step-children, the father is able to obtain parental responsibility in England and Wales if he is jointly named on the birth certificate (for births registered after 01 December 2023) or by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother. If an agreement can’t be reached independently, a Parental Responsibility Order may be made by the courts.
Parental responsibility determines who is responsible for the child’s wellbeing, including ensuring they have a safe home environment, are financially supported, have access to medical care and education. It provides a duty on the parent with care of the child to make those decisions in the best interests of the child and to consult with, and generally seek agreement from, the non-resident parent who also has parental responsibility.
It’s important to note that parental responsibility does not define whether the non-resident parent should be having contact with the child. There is always a presumption that the involvement of the non-resident parent is beneficial and contact arrangements are a separate issue entirely. Parental responsibility gives the non-resident parent the right to be involved and consulted on significant decisions in the life of the child and some decisions can only be made with their agreement. If an agreement can’t be reached, the courts may need to step in and independently determine what is in the best interests of the child.
If for example, the separated father objects to plans for the mother to move out of the jurisdiction with the child and the two parents can’t agree, the father could apply to the court for a Prohibited Steps Order to prevent the removal of the child by the other parent.
Who has more rights, Mum or Dad?
It may be assumed that Mum has more rights than Dad when it comes to their shared children but under UK law, that is not the case. Broadly speaking, if both parents have parental responsibility, rights are shared between the two parties.
Parents who don’t have parental responsibility don’t have the same rights to their children but as noted above, can acquire parental responsibility in various different ways.
Can a mother stop a father from seeing a child?
A mother stopping a father from seeing their child can be a concern for newly separated parents. Whilst parental responsibility doesn’t automatically guarantee a father is permitted to see their child, contact should happen as long as it is safe.
The Court would expect the resident parent to promote contact in a child focussed manner, but there are some examples where safety concerns would mean that contact would be limited (supervised in a contact centre, for example), or not taking place at all. For example, this could be due to concerns around alcohol or drug use, criminal behaviour or instances of domestic abuse or domestic violence.
Either parent can apply for a Child Arrangement Order to be issued to formalise which parent the child should live with and the nature of contact by the non-resident parent if both parties can’t come to an agreement independently.
Do solicitors offer free advice?
If you’re a separated parent and require legal advice regarding which child a parent lives with, where they live, contact arrangements and responsibilities, you can book a free consultation with one of our family solicitors. We’ll take time to understand your circumstances and provide guidance on the next steps. Schedule a callback to find out more.