Stepmothers and the Law II: Parental Responsibility

In this second post in the series Stepmothers and the Law, I’m giving a very brief ABC of the concept of Parental Responsibility in UK law – what it is, who has it, and why it matters.

Always seek legal advice specific to your situation. Please see Stepmothers and the Law I: Finding the Right Legal Advice for further information. See all of the Stepmothers and the Law posts here.

What is Parental Responsibility and When Does It Apply to Parents?

Parental Responsibility (PR) is the umbrella term given to the rights and responsibilities a parent has towards their child.

Everyone with PR for a child should be involved in the important decisions regarding that child’s life, such as

  • where the child lives;
  • their religion;
  • where they go to school or how they’re educated;
  • deciding their name; or
  • giving consent for the child to leave the country.

It does not, however, grant a parent the automatic right to see their child; contact rights are a separate (and often highly contentious) issue which will be discussed in future posts.

Mothers

All birth mothers automatically have PR, and in England fathers have PR if they were married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth or, if they weren’t married, if they are named on the child’s birth certificate (from 1 December 2003). This is slightly different in Scotland and Northern Ireland – see here for more information.

Fathers

If an unmarried father is not named on the birth certificate, he can obtain PR after the event by applying to the Court for a Parental Responsibility Order, by entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother, or by being named as the resident parent under a Child Arrangements Order.

Female Same-Sex Relationships

A woman in a lesbian relationship who isn’t the one giving birth to the child will have PR for that child if 1. the child is conceived after 6 April 2009 through artificial insemination, and 2. the woman is married or in a civil partnership with the other parent at that time. Both names should be included on the birth certificate.

If the child was conceived through sexual intercourse, or was conceived before 6 April 2009, the non-birth mother will not automatically have any rights to the child and will need to apply to the Court to obtain PR, or enter into a Parental Responsibility Agreement.

Rights of Women has a comprehensive guide on Lesbian Parenting which is worth a look if this scenario applies to your situation.

If a Parent Doesn’t Have PR, Do They Still Have to Pay Child Support?

Interestingly, whether or not a parent has PR does not impact on their requirement to provide for or pay maintenance towards the care of their children; i.e. they will still be obliged to do so. This is because, again, UK law considers this to be a separate issue. For better or for worse!

Can Stepparents Obtain Parental Responsibility?

Stepparents do not automatically obtain PR upon cohabitation, marriage or entering into a civil partnership with their stepchildren’s parent. You may not have the authority to sign consent forms for school, and you will not have a legal say in the decisions set out above.

If you’re a significant parental figure in your stepchild’s life, e.g. The Ex is neglectful, or day to day parenting falls largely on you, it’s easy to see how you might feel sidelined despite your significant input.

If you’ve discussed this with your stepchild’s parents, and they’re in agreement that you should be granted PR, you can apply to the Court to enter into a Parental Responsibility Agreement. You must, however, be married to one of the stepchild’s parents in order to do this.

Parental Responsibility Agreements – What the Court Will Consider

When deciding whether to approve a Parental Responsibility Agreement, the Court will consider:

  • whether all other adults with PR for the child consent;
  • whether granting PR would cause disruption to the child;
  • the attachment between the stepparent and the child; and
  • generally whether granting PR to the stepparent would be in the best interests of the child.

If you do not have all parents’ consents…

You will need to apply for a Court Order. In this situation, the Court will consider the above criteria in more detail, and you may find that they take a much more forensic look at your personal/family life.

Obtaining PR as an Unmarried Stepparent

An unmarried stepparent may obtain PR by adopting the child, or by obtaining a Child Arrangements Order (which has a less permanent effect than adoption, and does not grant the full suite of PR rights). An overview of how this would work in practice and what the Court would consider when reviewing these applications can be found on the Family Lives website. Note Child Arrangement Orders have now replaced what used to be Residence Orders in Court.

What Obtaining PR as a Stepparent Doesn’t Do

  • It doesn’t make you liable to pay maintenance for your stepchild – this will remain the responsibility of the child’s parents.
  • It doesn’t remove PR from any of the biological parents. If both parents are living, your stepchild will have three people with PR for them – you, and both their parents.
  • It doesn’t give you a greater say than any of the other parents in the child’s upbringing. You will all be on an equal footing.
  • If you separate from the child’s parent or move out, it doesn’t give you an automatic right to see the child. As with biological parents, for better or worse the UK legal system considers this to be a separate issue. (If you’re in the situation of no longer being in your stepchildren’s lives, I extend sincere sympathy out to you.)

Why Does Parental Responsibility Matter?

As I keep hammering home (sorry), simply having PR does not mean that you or your partner automatically have the right to see your child. This might mean that your PR rights are difficult to enforce where your stepchild does not reside with you, or you do not have frequent contact; having a say in the fundamentals of their life relies to an extent on good communication with the other parent.

It’s therefore in the best interests of your family that your partner maintains a good relationship with the ex without having to fall back on their legal rights at the sign of any disagreement. (The same applies to you if you have PR as the stepmother, much as it might be difficult sometimes!)

Of course this isn’t always possible, and if your child is suffering (e.g. through Parental Alienation – stay tuned to the blog for further discussion on this), it may have to be back to Court with you. It’s horrible and it’s hard, and you should serious consider discussing all your options with a sympathetic expert.

To badly misappropriate a J F Kennedy quote, PR matters most when it’s raining; if you or your partner have PR but you’re not the primary carer, and the relationship with their ex really goes nuclear, having PR will go some way to allowing you through the doors of the Court in matters concerning the children. This might be relevant where, for example, the ex intends on taking the children abroad for a significant length of time without permission.

More fundamentally, those with PR have the right to determine and consent to the medical care of their children. There can be nothing more important than the health of the children, and making sure the right people have the right say in the children’s care should it come to it is central to this.


Let the Stepmum In Silettos community in on your trials and tribulations – you can drop me a message anonymously if you have a story you would like to share. I would love to hear from you.


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