Who can have parental responsibility for a child?
England and Wales
Yes, automatically if the mother and father are married at the date of the birth.
Yes, automatically if the mother and father are married at the date of conception or if the mother and father married after the date of conception.
England and Wales
The father can get parental responsibility if he:
marries the mother after the birth, or
is registered as the father on the birth certificate (after 2003)
A second female partner, who is married to or in a civil partnership with the mother at the time of treatment (eg donor insemination or fertility treatment) will automatically have parental responsibility. Note that this will not be the case if the conception was the result of sexual intercourse or the wife/civil partner of the biological mother not consenting to the conception.
The father can get parental responsibility if he jointly registered the child’s birth with the birth mother (after 4 May 2006).
A second female partner will also have parental responsibility provided they are in a civil partnership or marriage with the woman at the time they have:
the egg donation
the embryo transfer, or
the donor insemination treatment which produces the child
England, Wales and Scotland
Parental responsibility can be agreed (eg for an unmarried father, the unmarried same-sex partner or a step-parent in addition to the natural parents) and then confirmed in a correctly completed Parental responsibility agreement (for England and Wales) or Parental responsibilities and parental rights agreement (for Scotland), or can be ordered by the court.
More than one person (or organisation such as the local authority) can have parental responsibility and if you have parental responsibility you don't stop until the child reaches 18 or is adopted (at which point the adoptive parents have the parental responsibility).
If both parents have died, the guardian of the child will have parental responsibility.
What is the legal definition of parental responsibility?
In England and Wales, the Children Act 1989 parental responsibility sets out parental responsibility. It states that parental responsibility means '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… It also includes the rights, powers and duties which a guardian… would have had in relation to the child and his property.'
In Scotland, the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 sets out parental responsibility. It states that parental responsibility means that 'a parent has in relation to his child the responsibility:
to safeguard and promote the child’s health, development and welfare;
to provide, in a manner appropriate to the stage of development of the child—
to the child;
if the child is not living with the parent, to maintain personal relations and direct contact with the child on a regular basis; and
to act as the child’s legal representative,
but only in so far as compliance with this section is practicable and in the interests of the child.'
What is the meaning of parental responsibility?
Each party with parental responsibility can make decisions on their own (except in some situations such as leaving the country permanently or adoption in which case both would need to agree) but the other party/parent can challenge any decision and have the matter decided by the court if necessary.
Having parental responsibility has consequences in a wide range of areas. For more information, read Parents’ rights and responsibilities.
Are there different levels of parental responsibility?
Of course, many parents don't live together and some don't even have contact with their children but agree that the children live with one or the other. Further, as children get older the level of responsibility inevitably decreases.
Parents will usually have a greater role to play than non-parents but an unmarried father who does not have parental responsibility still has the legal obligation to pay for the child. Remember, it is the child who is the important person here and the legislation is to protect them, not the mother and/or father.