Written by Andrew Woolley

Senior Partner at Woolley & Co

Andrew is a highly experienced family solicitor and a long term friend of OnlyMums & OnlyDads. He is the founder and senior partner of Woolley & Co, Solicitors.

Being a dad is something no one can prepare you for. No matter how many books you read, programmes you watch, people you speak to, when the first child comes along, you enter a whole different world – of worry!

As the biological father, you have a unique bond with the child that no one else can match. However, the legal complications around being a dad are not always so clear cut and may not be as binding as you might assume.

As the biological father, you have a unique bond with the child that no one else can match

What we are talking about is parental responsibility. This has nothing to do with not letting young children play with knives or ensuring they don’t roam the streets late at night. This is actually the right, in legal terms, to make certain decisions for you children. The best example of this is giving consent for medical procedures to be undertaken, but also stretches to things like the right to have access to school records and attend parent evenings. If you don’t have parental responsibility, you cannot automatically do any of these things without the permission of the mother.

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility, as does the father married to the mother, irrespective of whether the marriage occurred before or after the birth of the child. Unmarried fathers of children whose birth was registered on or after 1 December 2003 also have parental responsibility, provided they are named on the birth certificate.

If you don’t have parental responsibility, there are some things you can’t do without the permission of the mother.

Fathers of children whose birth is registered before that date who haven’t acquired parental responsibility by virtue of marriage, or unmarried fathers of children whose birth is registered after that date, and are not named as father on the child’s birth certificate, do not automatically have parental responsibility. Step-parents also do not have this responsibility. This does all sound complicated, but it is the law.

Divorce does not affect parental responsibility one way or the other but it is unmarried fathers who then split from the mothers, or step parents, who may have the biggest interest in this area. Do not worry too much though as parental responsibility can be acquired. This can be done in one of three ways: marrying the mother of your child, discussing the issue with the mother and reaching a voluntary Parental Responsibility Agreement or going to court to get a Parental Responsibility Order. This third option is the last resort when the mother will not acquiesce. In those cases, the dad will need to show the court that there is a degree of commitment to the child, there is an attachment between the father and child, and that the child’s welfare is the driving reason for the application. It is a not a weapon to be used as part of a messy break-up.

An experienced family lawyer can help you through the simple process, which should be managed fairly quickly and cost effectively. However, it is best to be prepared. So ahead of school holidays, when the absent parent may have their child for a longer than normal period of time, it is worth checking on your own status to ensure you have the legal right to make decisions for your child while they are in your care.


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