Being a parent is a huge responsibility. From the very second your first is born, for the rest of your life you are unlikely to ever stop caring for them and worrying about them in more ways than one.
In some ways, this aspect of having children is the straightforward bit. No matter what trials and tribulations a family may go through, the relationship between a child and their parents is constant. However, when you look at that relationship in legal terms, it is perhaps not as clear, especially to the untrained eye.
For a start, not all parents have parental responsibility for their own child. Having parental responsibility means having the legal right to make decisions on certain issues for your offspring, like giving permission for medical procedures or interacting with the school around their education. A birth mother automatically has parental responsibility, whether they are married or not. For unmarried fathers the story is quite different. Unmarried fathers of children whose birth is registered on or after 1 December 2003, provided they are named on the birth certificate of the child, also have parental responsibility.
Fathers of children whose birth is registered before 1 December 2003 who haven’t acquired parental responsibility by virtue of marriage, or unmarried fathers of children whose birth is registered after 1 December 2003 and are not named as father on the child’s birth certificate, do not automatically have parental responsibility.
In one sense this is irrelevant since the law is designed to protect the interests of the child, not those of the parents. The law gives children certain rights, the most important perhaps being the right to a relationship with both parents. This means that, in the event of the parents separating or divorcing, arguments along the lines of: “I’m his father, I have a right to see him” carry no weight in legal terms.
Children are the ones likely to suffer most in the event of any divorce or separation so deciding the best way to make arrangements for the children to see both parents and minimising the impact of the break-up on their lives should be the over-riding priority. This is what the law expects - though not always what is delivered.
In some instances, a parenting agreement may be useful, particularly where parents are struggling to come to an agreement on residence and contact (note that custody and access are terms that are no longer used legally though still hurled about liberally in discussions). This is where both parents sit down and draw up how they would like arrangements to be handled. Often the very act of doing this allows parents to overcome obstacles that were blocking agreement previously. Even if the two parties are getting on reasonably well in the circumstances, a parenting agreement is a sensible tool to clearly lay out what everyone expects, from contact visits and where they live, to baby sitting arrangements. In fact, whatever they want.
As a final stop in this whistle-stop tour of children and the law, it is worth noting that there is no legal connection between child maintenance and parental responsibility. All parents have a legal responsibility to financially support their offspring.
A handy guide on children and the law can be downloaded for free here.
Woolley & Co Family Law Solicitors