Parental responsibility - what does it mean?

We are regularly asked by parents what parental responsibility means, what rights parents have and the circumstances in which these rights can be acquired.  We hope that this article will assist with some of the misunderstandings in this complex area of law.  

Parental responsibility is described as “all rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, a parent has in relation to a child and their property”.  It provides the authority to choose a child’s school, form of religious upbringing, medical treatment and by what name the child should be known.  Therefore a father may find that a school, doctor or hospital will not deal directly with them unless he has parental responsibility.

Where parents share the responsibility, neither of them can take the child out of the country without the consent of the other. 


There is an exception; if one parent has a Residence Order in their favour, this will allow that parent to take the child out of the country for a period of no more than 28 days, without the authority of the other parent.   If consent is withheld, the parent seeking to remove the child can make an application through the courts.

Who automatically has parental responsibility?

  • A child’s mother has automatic parental responsibility from the date of the child’s birth, as does the father who is married to the mother of the child either before or after the child’s birth.  If the parents divorce they will still continue to share parental responsibility for the child.
  • If a couple jointly adopts a child, they will share parental responsibility for the adoptive child.
  • The father of a child born after 1 December 2003 who is named on the child’s birth certificate  automatically has parental responsibility whether he is married to the mother or not.

How can parental responsibility be obtained?

Where a father who is not married to the child’s mother wishes to acquire parental responsibility, there are several options available to him. 

A Parental Responsibility Agreement can be drawn up, which is signed by the parents and witnessed at the local court and then registered with the Principal Registry of the Family Division in London.  The court can grant the father a Parental Responsibility Order or even a Residence Order which would also give him parental responsibility for the child.

Step parents are also able to acquire parental responsibility for a step child either by entering into a Step Parental Responsibility Agreement (which requires the consent of all of those who hold parental responsibility) or by an order granted by the court.  A Step Parental Responsibility Agreement will need to be registered in the same way as that for an unmarried father.

Parental responsibility for same sex couples, civil partners and in relation to surrogacy arrangements, is a very complex area of law and we would recommend that couples seek specialist legal advice as soon as possible to establish what rights they may acquire automatically, what rights can be acquired and who can share parental responsibility.​

Although we hope this information will be useful, it cannot replace specialist legal advice on your specific circumstances.  To discuss any issues relating to parental responsibility, please contact Yolande Millar.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.