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Easter warning for step-parents

Monday April 6, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Hundreds of children across the country could be left without anyone legally in charge of them this Easter because step-parents do not have the right to make important decisions in the event of an emergency, family law firm Woolley & Co has warned.

Many families split by divorce will see the children visiting both sets of parents over the school holidays – but many are unaware that legally some parents and their partners do not have parental responsibility and so not are not permitted to give permission for things like hospital treatment in the event of an emergency.

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”. It means a person has all the legal powers to make appropriate decisions in relation to the upbringing of a child for whom they have parental responsibility.

A mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child, as does a married father irrespective of whether the marriage to the mother occurred before or after the birth of the child. As from the 1st December 2003 unmarried fathers of children born after this date, provided they are named on the birth certificate of the child, also have parental responsibility. So fathers whose son or daughter is more than five years four months old, who are are not married to the child’s mother and not on the birth certificate, may not be able to take important decisions for their child if the mother is absent.

“On a practical level, having parental responsibility will, amongst other things, allow you to contact your child’s GP to obtain or discuss medical treatment for your child and to play an active role in your child’s education, giving you access to school reports, parents evenings, and that sort of thing,” said Andrew Woolley, managing partner at Stratford-based Woolley & Co.

“In most instances, this is not a huge issue and that is why it is not something that many people are particularly aware of. But it comes to the fore at times like school holidays when a child might spend more time with the parent they do not ordinarily live with. The father may not have automatic responsibility, and if they have a new partner, they almost certainly won’t unless it is specifically applied for or there is a special agreement put in place which is registered.

“Step-parents do not automatically have parental responsibility either so it is important for families to tackle this issue to ensure that when a child is staying with a step-parent or an estranged dad without automatic parental responsibility, they have all the necessary powers to act legally for them should the need arise.”

If you are a father who does not have parental responsibility it can be obtained by:

  • marrying the mother of the child which is not always an option
  • entering into a voluntary Parental Responsibility Agreement with the mother
  • obtaining an order of the court (Parental Responsibility Order).

Step-parents can also obtain parental responsibility through a court order or a parental responsibility agreement, with the consent of the others who do have parental responsibility.

Woolley & Co has 12 family law experts based across the Midlands, East Anglia, the South West and London, tackling all aspects of family law. For more advice, visit

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