Parental responsibility (PR) is a fundamental concept in UK family law. It is defined in Section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 (the Act) 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”.
Just because you are the biological parent of a child does not necessarily mean that you will have PR. This is particularly important for unmarried fathers who need to ensure that they are included on the birth certificate for their child when the birth is registered or else they will subsequently need to take administrative or legal steps to obtain PR. Further details are set out below.
This post is going to look at how PR is obtained and how it can be lost or restricted with consideration of the recent case of B and C (Change of Names– Parental Responsibility – Evidence)  EWHC 3250 (Fam). A link to the Act is here which may be helpful as there are several references to specific clauses.
Obtaining Parental Responsibility
Section 2 of the Act set out how PR is obtained automatically. If a mother and father were married at the time of their child’s birth then both obtain PR automatically under section 2(1). Section 2(1A) contains similar provisions for when both parents will automatically have PR when a child is conceived through artificial insemination or IVF treatment. If the mother and father were not married, or the criteria for the other parent in section 2(1A) are not met, then only the mother will have PR automatically (section 2(2)(a)).
The father may obtain PR under section 4(1) of the Act by either:
a) being named as the father on the birth certificate;
b) by entering into a “parent responsibility agreement” with the mother; or
c) by order of the court on his application.
Sections 4A and 4ZA contain similar provision on how people who are not the father, such as a second female parent or step-parent can obtain PR.
I have set out the legislative framework above as there is an interesting difference in the approach to those parents who obtain PR automatically under section 2 of the Act, and those who obtain it under the provisions in sections 4, 4ZA and 4A. This is relevant in the rare circumstances where PR may be withdrawn or restricted.
Restricting Parental Responsibility
Ordinarily, a child will benefit from both parents having and exercising their PR. Withdrawing or restricting PR is a significant and draconian step that will only be considered in the most extreme circumstances to protect the child.
A parent who has obtained PR automatically under section 2 of the Act can never have that it taken away from them but they can have it restricted, either in part or completely. Completely restricting PR could effectively achieve the same result as having it withdrawn. In order to restrict someone’s PR in this way an application must be made for a prohibited steps order (a PSO) under section 8 of the Act. A PSO is defined in Section 8(1) of the Act as being:
“an order that no step which could be taken by a parent in meeting his parental responsibility for a child, and which is of a kind specified in the order shall be taken by any person without the consent of the court”
Applications made under Section 8 of the Act require the Court must apply the ‘welfare checklist’ set out in Section 1(3) of the Act.
“In the circumstances mentioned in subsection (4), a court shall have regard in particular to—
a) the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);
b) his physical, emotional and educational needs;
c) the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;
d) his age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant;
e) any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
f) how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs;
g) the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question.”
A parent who has obtained PR through sections 4, 4ZA or 4A can have it restricted by a PSO but can also have it withdrawn completely. An application to withdraw PR is made under the relevant subsection in the Act. It is not an application made under section 8 and so the Court is not obliged to apply to welfare checklist.
The consequence of this is that the Courts may be required to take a different approach to what is essentially the same question depending on how the PR was obtained in the first place.
Does it matter?
This could be relevant when comparing an application to restrict PR completely when that PR has been obtained automatically, and an application to withdraw PR which has been otherwise obtained. The former arose in the case of B and C. The mother argued that the father posed such a threat to the children that he should play no part in their lives. He had, among other things, abducted the children to Southern Iran, excluding their mother from their lives and subjected them to physical abuse. The mother had to effect a risky rescue of the children to return them to England. The father had obtained PR automatically under section 2(1) of the Act.
In addition to the application for PR to be restricted under section 8, the mother applied for the children’s names to be changed completely and for her evidence to be withheld from the father as it contained details about where she and the children were living. All three such applications are highly unusual in children proceedings and would be considered an interference with the ECHR Article 8 right to private and family life. Notwithstanding this, the Court applied the welfare checklist as it was required to do and found that the circumstance were such to justify the applications and found in the mother’s favour on all points.
In considering the mother’s request to restrict PR, Mister Justice Cobb, considered the case of Re D (Withdrawal of Parental Responsibility) 2014EWCA Civ 315. In contrast to B and C, this case involved an application to remove PR completely (so not a section 8 application). In his judgment, Cobb J set out twelve principles to be drawn from Re D. This included:
“iv)That there was is no requirement upon the court to consider the factors set out in section 1(3)(the ‘welfare checklist’) but the court is not prevented from doing so and may find it helpful to use an analytical framework not least because welfare has to be considered and reasoned.
This suggests that, even where the welfare checklist does not apply, it is likely to have an influence on how the case is decided. Arguably then, there will be little difference in how the court approaches the question of withdrawing PR or restricting it completely. However, as the Court is not bound to take the welfare checklist into account in applications for removal of PR, it would be prudent to give consideration as to what weight if any should be given to it in those circumstances. Should this be the case though? This leaves us with a situation where a different test will apply depending on the nature of the relationship between the parents and not the relationship between the parent and the child.