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LEGAL CHALLENGE: Child’s welfare must be chief concern
Q My ex-girlfriend and I separated and do not get on. Our son lives with her and she says that I have no right to be kept informed of his progress or wellbeing, despite being his father, as I am not named on his birth certificate. Is this true?
A Parental Responsibility (often referred to as ‘PR’) is defined in 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 his property.
Essentially this means that anyone with parental responsibility for a child is entitled to be involved in the major decisions in their life including their education, medical treatment and other related issues.
The biological mother of a child has parental responsibility automatically as a result of giving birth to that child. A father who is married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth also has parental responsibility automatically.
An unmarried father can only acquire parental responsibility (in England and Wales) if:
- The birth was registered after December 1, 2003 and he is named on the child’s birth certificate, or
- He later marries the mother, or
- He enters into an acceptable agreement with the mother, or
- An order granting parental responsibility is made by the court.
Other individuals can acquire parental responsibility for a child if they are granted a residence order, adoption order or special guardianship order (this could include a grandparent, for example).
If you are not married to your ex-partner and have not acquired parental responsibility by one of the methods above, you are his biological parent.
Schools, GPs and other practitioners will, however, be reluctant to release information relating to your son to you as you do not have parental responsibility. They may request to see a copy of a parental responsibility agreement or order of the court before any information is released.
If your ex-girlfriend refuses to provide you with information relating to your son and will not agree to enter into a parental responsibility agreement with you, you will need to apply to the court to obtain a parental responsibility order.
As with any application relating to a children matter, the court will expect you to have considered all other routes before you issue court proceedings.
In fact, from April it will become mandatory for parties in family proceedings to have attended a Mediation and Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) prior to making an application for a court order. A MIAM is essentially an initial meeting with a mediator who will go through the various options/processes available to the parties in resolving the issues between them. It is hoped that this will help to avoid costly and emotional court proceedings where possible.
Where court proceedings are initiated; in deciding whether to make an order granting parental responsibility, the court will need to be persuaded that the father has shown a degree of commitment to the child (evidenced by a commitment to contact or financial commitment through regular maintenance payments, for example) and that there is a degree of attachment between the child and father. The court would also need to be sure that the application has been made purely in the interests of the child’s welfare, not simply for personal gain.
If you do obtain parental responsibility for your son, you must ensure that you exercise it appropriately and jointly with your ex-girlfriend and she must do the same.