This information should not be relied upon as legal or professional advice. Read the disclaimer.

When parents separate, decisions may need to be made about the child’s upbringing.

The page provides general information and links to Library briefings on parental responsibility, child arrangements orders, and child maintenance. Most of the information applies to either Great Britain, or England and Wales only.

Library briefings provide general information. People in need of specific advice on their circumstances are best advised to seek specialist legal help. The Library paper: Legal help: Where to go and how to pay may be relevant. There are some situations where a parent may be able to access legal aid (such as if they have experienced domestic abuse).

Child arrangements orders

When it’s not possible to reach agreement over contact or residence for a child, the matter can be decided by the court.

A child arrangements order is a court order specifying things such as with whom a child is to live, when they spend time with each parent, and when and what other types of contact can take place (eg, phone calls).

Under section 1 of the Children Act 1989, when a court considers any question with respect to the upbringing of a child its “paramount consideration” is the welfare of the child. Additionally, when considering whether to make or vary a child arrangements order, the court should presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of both parents “will further the child’s welfare”.

Further information is available in the following Library briefings:

Parental responsibility

Section 3 of the 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.”

Certain people are automatically deemed to have parental responsibility, such as a child’s biological mother. The position is more complex regarding biological fathers.

Where there is a dispute between those who have parental responsibility for a child, an application can be made to court for an order under section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (so-called “section 8 orders”). These comprise:

  • Child arrangements orders (see above).
  • Specific issue orders: an order determining a specific question which has arisen in connection with any aspect of parental responsibility (eg, where a child should go to school).
  • A prohibited steps order: an order preventing a person from doing something specified in the order (eg, taking the child out of the UK).

The following Library briefings provide more information:

Child maintenance

Child maintenance is a financial arrangement between the parent a child does not normally live with (the non-resident parent) and the person the child lives with and who usually provides day-to-day care (the person with care). Under section 1 of the Child Support Act 1991, a parent is legally required to maintain their child, even if they have no contact.

It’s not compulsory to have a formal child maintenance arrangement as parents can arrange child maintenance themselves. Where parents cannot agree, maintenance can be arranged through the government’s statutory service, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

The Library has briefings covering the CMS, such as how it calculates a parent’s liability, the fees it charges and its support for victims of domestic abuse. The papers cover child maintenance under the 2012 Scheme (the current scheme) in Great Britain. Northern Ireland has a similar, but separate scheme, which is covered in less detail.

Further reading

House of Commons Library website has a collection of briefings on children and families.


The Commons Library does not intend the information in this article to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs. You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein. You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information. Read our briefing for information about sources of legal advice and help.