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What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is distinct from legal parentage and is defined by the Children Act 1989 as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and [their] property”. It is possible for someone to have parental responsibility for a child without being their legal parent, and for a legal parent to not have parental responsibility.

The scope of parental responsibility is not defined in the Children Act but aspects of it have been acknowledged by the courts. This includes, for example, determining the child’s education and consenting to their medical treatment.

While each person with parental responsibility can generally make day-to-day decisions about the child independently, agreement is usually needed for important decisions such as which school a child should attend.  

Where there is a dispute between those who have parental responsibility, the court can be asked to decide the issue. When a court makes any decision about a child’s upbringing its “paramount consideration” is the child’s welfare.

The extent to which a person can exercise their parental responsibility generally diminishes as a child gets older. Parental responsibility ceases when a child reaches 18 years of age.

How is parental responsibility acquired?

Parental responsibility may be acquired in a number of ways and by several different people (including a local authority where a care order has been made).

A child’s birth mother automatically acquires parental responsibility from birth. This is also the case for fathers and second female partners if they are married or in a civil partnership with the child’s mother. Unmarried partners do not automatically have parental responsibility but they can acquire it in several ways, including by being registered on the child’s birth certificate.

It is also possible for non-parents to acquire parental responsibility.

Surrogacy and proposed reform

A surrogate mother, irrespective of whether they are genetically related to the child, is the child’s legal mother at birth. Who the second legal parent is at birth depends on the circumstances.

To pass responsibility for the child to the intended parents, a “parental order” can be obtained from the courts after the child is born. This has the effect of conferring both legal parenthood and parental responsibility on the intended parents.

In a joint report published in March 2023, the Law Commission of England and Wales, and the Scottish Law Commission recommended reforms (PDF) to the law on surrogacy. Under the proposals, intended parents would be able to become the child’s legal parents at birth without having to apply for a parental order.

How is parental responsibility lost?

The only circumstances where a child’s legal mother can lose parental responsibility is through an adoption order, or a parental order (in respect of a surrogate child that the mother gave birth to). Both these orders also remove their status as the child’s legal parent.

This is the same where a father or other parent acquired parental responsibility by being married to or in a civil partnership with the mother at the time of the birth.

Where a child’s father or other parent acquired parental responsibility through other means it can be brought to an end by a court order.

The court can also restrict a person’s parental responsibility by making an order that in some way limits their rights in relation to the child without terminating their parental responsibility completely.

Proposed reform: Jade’s Law

In October 2023, the Government announced it intended to change the law so that parents convicted of killing their child’s other parent would have their parental responsibility suspended upon sentencing. The Government tabled amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill (PDF) (NC37) providing for this change. The Bill’s Commons Report Stage is scheduled for 4 December 2023.

The proposals followed a campaign by the family of Jade Ward, who was murdered by her ex-partner in August 2021. An e-petition on the issue received over 130,000 signatures and was debated in Westminster Hall in November 2022.

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