The concept of a traditional family unit has changed, and, in some situations, this can give rise to problems. Figures from 2016 suggest that not only does it have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of the family unit, but it has a financial impact too. According to the Relationships Foundation’s report ‘The Cost of Family Failure Index’, the economic impact of family breakdown in 2016 was higher than the UK defence budget, at an astonishing £48billion. That breaks down to an individual cost for each and every taxpayer of £1,820.
There are those that say once a parent (in the majority of cases, the father) has removed themselves from the family unit, they give up all rights and influence on how the children are then raised. However, that is not true, and even if a parent is absent for a prolonged period, they still have a right to influence how the children are raised. If the parent’s name is on the birth certificate, then they are deemed to have Parental Responsibility under the Children’s Act 1989.
What is parental responsibility?
Parental Responsibility is defined in law as being: “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”. This is more focused on the parent’s duties and responsibilities towards the upbringing of the child, rather than their ‘rights’ over them.
In practical terms, it means that anyone with Parental Responsibility has a say in any decisions made about the child’s education, health, wellbeing and a host of other everyday decisions including:
- where the child goes to school
- choosing, registering or changing the child’s name
- consenting to some medical treatment
- access to the child’s medical records
- giving permission for the child to spend extended time abroad
- representing the child in legal proceedings
- the religious upbringing of the child
What Parental Responsibility does not grant, though, is any automatic access rights to the child, especially if a court has granted sole custody to one parent, or the right to automatically know where the child is living.
Who has Parental Responsibility?
The system assumes (not always correctly) that it’s the mother who is best fit to bring up a child, so she automatically has Parental Responsibility. Married fathers also have it, and do not lose that right if they divorce the child’s mother. Unmarried fathers, however, do not automatically get that right, nor do step-parents or grandparents.
The only way an unmarried father can get Parental Responsibility is if they either marry the mother or obtain a Parental Responsibility Order from the court. There are other ways of getting this privilege, such as being named as the resident parent or becoming the child’s guardian, but a PRO is the usual method.
Are there any exceptions?
In 2003 the law changed to allow unmarried fathers to be given Parental Responsibility if they are registered on the birth certificate. There is also the option to re-register the birth to include the father’s name.
What does all of this mean?
For absentee parents, the legislation is there for the benefit of the courts and certainly doesn’t provide families with any emotional support if a parent suddenly reappears after a long absence. It also doesn’t grant that absentee parent any ‘rights’ as such to make contact or have any major influence in the child’s life, outside of the individual clauses laid out by law. The biggest conflict usually centres around access, which in most cases needs to be determined either through mediation or through a court order.
The bottom line is that whether a parent is absent for six months or six years, the rights of both the mother (through Parental Responsibility) and the father do not change. In the majority of cases, access is the key issue and the most contentious one, but with a little bit of help from a family law expert or mediator, resolutions can be achieved. The welfare of the child must be the number one priority throughout the process, regardless of how long the absentee parent has been away, and both the courts and any legal representatives will always ensure that their interests are put first.