Parental responsibility refers to the rights between a child and their parents or adults with a significant role in the child's life.

Unlike mothers, fathers don't always have parental responsibility for their children.

While the law doesn't define in detail what parental responsibility is, key roles include:

  • providing a home for the child;
  • disciplining, protecting and maintaining the child;
  • agreeing to a child's medical treatment;
  • deciding on the child's religion and education; and
  • allowing confidential information about the child to be disclosed.

You can  read more about parental responsibility in our leaflet here (pdf / 22 KB).

Who has parental responsibility?

In England and Wales, if the parents of a child are married to each other at the time of the birth, or if they have jointly adopted a child, they both have parental responsibility. Parents do not lose parental responsibility if they divorce, and this applies to both the resident and the non-resident parent. This is not automatically the case for unmarried parents. By law, a mother always has parental responsibility for her child. A father has this responsibility only if one of the following applies:

  • he is married to the mother when the child is born;
  • the parents were not married when the child was born but married afterwards;
  • he has a parental responsibility order granted by a court;
  • he has signed a formal parental responsibility agreement with the mother; or
  • the child's birth was registered after 1 December 2003 and he is named as the father on the birth certificate.

Living with the mother does not give a father parental responsibility and if the parents are not married, parental responsibility does not always pass to the father if the mother dies.

Applying to the courts for parental responsibility

A father can apply to the court to gain parental responsibility. The court will take the following into account:

  • the degree of commitment shown by the father to his child;
  • the degree of attachment between the father and child; and
  • the father's reasons for applying for the order.

The court will accept or reject the application based on what it believes is in the child's best interest.

Where parents are not living together, the court can make a residence order, deciding who the child will live with. This may be one of the child's parents or a third party, such as a member of the extended family. The court can also make "contact orders", which require the person looking after the child to make the child available to meet another person, usually the other parent. The court has extensive powers to enforce contact orders where the parent with care fails to make the child available.

Frequently asked questions

Child maintenance is paid for children who live away from one or both of their parents.

It is an amount of money paid regularly by the non-resident parent for the child. The Child Support Agency (CSA) calculates and collects the payment for parents and children who normally live in the UK. The CSA has the power to require an "absent parent" to make regular payments for the maintenance of their child. The amount is calculated according to a formula, based on the absent parent's gross income.

The family courts can make orders for maintenance for the benefit of a (former) husband, wife or civil partner. In certain circumstances, they can award maintenance for a child. Unlike the CSA, the courts have the power to make orders for the transfer of property, such as the family home, sharing of pension rights and for the payment of lump sums.