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Family Law Blog

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Family courts intervene to prevent emotional harm of child

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Parental responsibility.

I was tempted to entitle this blog Sparkling Cyanide, sadly not a reference to a work by Agatha Christie but in fact a recent case in the family courts which illustrates how the courts become involved when parental ‘responsibility’ isn’t being exercised.

The case I am referring to involved the court of appeal intervening when a mother wished to name one of her children “Cyanide”. The mother had a long standing diagnosis of a psychotic disorder and of schizophrenia and her parenting capacity was further impaired by drug and alcohol misuse. The Courts were concerned that the child could suffer from emotional harm by being named after a notorious poison. No doubt the family court felt they simply had to get involved.

Generally, they do not interfere with a parent invoking their rights of parental responsibility and the Family Court’s powers will be exercised in only the most extreme cases, this clearly being one.

So, what is parental responsibility exactly?

The legal definition of parental responsibility is defined 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”. In practical terms this means that a parent with parental responsibility has the power to choose the child’s education, religion, name or medical treatment as well as having contact with the child and to agree to the child going on holiday or spending time out of the jurisdiction. 

Who has parental responsibility?

The mother has parental responsibility automatically. The father however may or may not have parental responsibility and indeed before the introduction of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 an unmarried father did not have parental responsibility at all unless he was married to or subsequently married to the mother. After the introduction of the above Act an unmarried father will obtain parental responsibility automatically in the following ways:

  • By being registered on the child’s birth certificate in respect of a child born on or after 1 December 2003;
  • By agreement with the mother called a Parental Responsibility Agreement;
  • By way of a Parental Responsibility Order;
  • By being appointed as the child’s guardian;
  • By adopting his child. 

Many unmarried fathers are blissfully unaware of the fact that they may not have parental responsibility for their child. It goes without saying that it is fundamentally important a father should have parental responsibility and if in any doubt you should contact a family lawyer for advice. 

The good news is the majority of parents exercise their parental responsibility sensibly, not attempting to give their children dubious names or put them at risk in any way. As this case illustrates however, the courts will intervene if they are worried about the welfare or future welfare of a child and quite rightly so in my opinion.

Nick Wiseman
Divorce & family lawyer Great Yarmouth

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