The concept of a parental responsibility agreement came into law in 1989 with the enactment of the Children Act. The intent was to move away from parents asserting their rights towards moving towards their responsibilities for their children.

Parental responsibility is defined as follows “The legal rights and duties in respect of a child and his or her property”. In effect it is the entirety of the decision making process that a parent would expect to be able to utilise in regards to making arrangements for their child.

Situation for Mothers

The situation for mothers has not changed since 1989 and has been simple and straightforward. If you are a mother who gives birth to a child you are automatically granted parental responsibility on that birth and will retain the same until it is discharged on the child becoming 18 and legally becoming an adult, UK law however can be somewhat confusing between the child’s age of 16 and 18 in terms of providing limitations to that parental responsibility.

Parental responsibility that is granted to a mother can only be discharged by the child becoming an adult and, statute and/or law (16 to 18) or upon the child being adopted.

Situation for Fathers

The position for biological fathers was not so straightforward.

In 1989 fathers only had parental responsibility for their children if:

  • They were married to or subsequently married the child’s mother.
  • An Agreement was entered into with the mother.
  • The Court granted parental responsibility to them.

Subsequent changes and amendments to Children Act however now confirm that children’s biological fathers automatically hold parental responsibility for their children in addition to those identified above if they are named on the child’s Birth Certificate.

If not, (and not married to or subsequently marry the mother), biological fathers are still able to secure parental responsibility by either entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement, securing the same through the Court, or via an alternative Court Order which brings with it parental responsibility.

Parental Responsibility Agreement

A Parental Responsibility Agreement by its very name requires that the parents agreed to the grant of parental responsibility to a father, who does not already hold it and this is a formal document that needs to be entered into and subsequently registered. Alternatively within Court proceedings a father can be granted parental responsibility by way of Court Order either solely or on its own or by reason of an alternative Order such as a Live with Order which brings parental responsibility with it.

In general terms if a father does not hold parental responsibility and an agreement cannot be entered into with the mother, if that father is having direct face to face contact with his child unless there are very good reasons why not it is almost inevitable that the father will be granted parental responsibility by the Court.

Children Act

The Children Act identifies that generally parental responsibility can be exercised either jointly or severally. This means parents should agree decisions in regard to the child but in reality many of the decisions which are taken on a daily basis for a child do not require the consent of the other parent.

I have dealt with a number of areas where there can be disputes in regard to parental responsibly and how these may be looked at in earlier articles including for example who children can be brought into contact with, use of babysitters, children’s sleepovers, clubs, activities, etc.

Where parents are in dispute over aspects of parental responsibility of significance i.e. religious upbringing, Courts can make orders to resolve those disputed issues between the parents by the implementation of either specific issue or Prohibited Steps Orders (see later Article).

Parental responsibility often only comes in to focus when there are significant differences between the parents but parents utilise their authority under parental responsibility on a daily basis, as the exercise of parental responsibility includes determining not only, for example, which school a child might attend, but whether they can have their photographs included in school websites, whether the child can go on a school trip, what time they get up, what time they go to bed, what food is provided etc.

Orders by a court 

It is possible for others however to secure parental responsibility other than the parents.

A number of Orders can be made by a Court bring with it as an attachment parental responsibility. This includes, for example:

  • A Child Arrangement Live with Order which determines whether a child should live with a non-parent (which brings with it the grant of parental responsibility);
  • A Special Guardianship Order which also places the child in the care of a non-parent and (again also brings with it the grant of parental responsibility);
  • In the event that a child has been living with a step-parent an Application particularly with the consent of both natural parents can be made by that step-parent for the grant of parental responsibility; and/or
  • (which I will deal with in more detail in the subsequent Article). The devolvement of parental responsibility to that person by a parent.

However biological parents do not have as a requirement that the child lives with that parent for them to hold and continue to hold parental responsibility.

Separated parents

In separated parent case even if the child primarily lives with one parent or there is a “live with order” that is the only purpose of a Live with Order it does not provide that parent with greater or more substantive power to utilise or operate their parental responsibility over the “non-resident” parent.

It is unfortunate that this is not necessarily a well understood principle in regards to other agencies and organisations, school, doctors, etc and it may be necessary on occasion for a parent to specify and identify that they hold “parental responsibility” and that this brings with it the right, for example, to:

  • be engaged in their child’s education and receive school documents, reports; and/or
  • to receive information updating them in regards to their child’s medical circumstances.

I raise this as it has been the case that on a number of occasions I have had to specifically write to organisations on behalf of parents to emphasise and identify the legal position as held by a parent with regards to them holding of parental responsibility in order for them to be able to exercise their responsibility appropriately.


If you have asked any questions relating to this topic and would now like more information on the different types of proceedings relating to children, please get in touch and we would be happy to assist you.

This article is part of a series on Private Family Law and Children Law proceedings. If you would like to learn more about the rules around parental responsibility, contact, holidays and arrangements for separated parents, please click here for the full series.