Parental responsibility: Your rights in England and Wales

Understanding your parental rights and responsibilities is crucial for every parent or legal guardian. This article provides guidance on the legal concept of parental responsibility, helping you seek clarity on your own or another individual’s parental responsibilities.

As experienced family mediators, we help parents navigate separation or divorce. The information in this guide is tailored to help you make informed decisions on your next steps as a parent.

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What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is a legal term that encompasses the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities, and authority a parent has for a child and the child's property under the law in England and Wales.

It grants parents the ability to make important decisions in their child's life, covering aspects such as education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. The essence of parental responsibility is to ensure the child's welfare is always the primary concern.

The practical implications of parental responsibility

Having parental responsibility means you have important rights and duties in your child's everyday life and major decisions. This involves:

  • Healthcare decisions: Parental responsibility allows you to make medical decisions on behalf of your child, from routine check-ups to consenting to or refusing certain medical treatments.
  • Educational choices: You have the right to decide where your child goes to school, have access to their school records, and make decisions about their education, including special educational needs if applicable.
  • Religious upbringing: It enables you to decide on the religious education and practises your child will follow, shaping their spiritual development in line with your beliefs.
  • Living arrangements: You can make decisions about where your child lives, including moving to a new location or travelling abroad.
  • Legal representation: In any legal matter affecting the child, you can represent their interests, ensuring their rights and welfare are protected.
  • Financial management: For children who own property or receive an inheritance, those with parental responsibility are charged with managing these assets on behalf of the child until they reach adulthood.
  • Parenting Plans: Holding parental responsibility also empowers you to contribute towards creating a parenting plan. A parenting plan is a written agreement co-developed by parents, detailing how they will care and provide for their child following separation or divorce.

In settings like hospitals and schools, professionals may request proof of parental responsibility to ensure that the individual making decisions for a child has the legal authority to do so. This system helps safeguard the child's welfare by ensuring that significant decisions are made by those legally recognised to have the child's best interests at heart.

Overall, parental responsibility is a legal acknowledgment of the significant role parents and guardians play in their child's life, equipping them with the authority needed to fulfil this role effectively. It underscores the importance of ensuring the child's welfare and best interests in every decision made, from the mundane to the monumental.

Who has parental responsibility?

In England and Wales, parental responsibility is automatically granted to the child's mother. Whether the father also has parental responsibility can depend on whether they are married to the mother at the time of the child's birth, as well as other legal factors.

Fathers married to, or in a civil partnership with, the mother when the child is born automatically receive parental responsibility. Fathers who are not married to, or in a civil partnership with, the mother r do not hold parental responsibility by default, unless they:

  • are listed on the birth certificate (for births registered after December 1, 2003)
  • obtain responsibility via a parental responsibility agreement or order
  • have a Residence Order(for cases prior to April 2014)
  • are named as the person who has primary care of the child pursuant to a Child Arrangements Order

In cases involving adoption, surrogacy, same-sex parenting, and step-parenting, specific legal provisions determine who gains parental responsibility.

Births registered outside the UK

For children born outside the UK, parental responsibility is determined by the laws of the country where the child was born. If you and your child move to England or Wales, you may need to take steps to ensure your parental responsibility is recognised under UK law.

This could involve legal actions or applications, and it's recommended to seek legal advice to understand your specific situation and ensure your rights are protected in the UK.

Unmarried parents

For unmarried parents, the situation can be a bit more complex. Unmarried mothers automatically have parental responsibility. Unmarried fathers, however, do not automatically receive parental responsibility. They can acquire it by:

  • being named on the child's birth certificate (for births registered in England and Wales after December 1, 2003)
  • entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother
  • obtaining a parental responsibility order from the court
  • obtaining a Residence Order (for cases prior to April 2014)
  • obtaining a Child Arrangements Order which names them as the person who has primary care of the child

This legal framework ensures that both parents have the opportunity to be involved in the important decisions in their child's life, provided it serves the best interests of the child. The emphasis is always on the well-being and welfare of the child, ensuring that they are cared for and that their needs are met.

Same-sex mothers

For same-sex mothers, the birth mother will automatically acquire parental responsibility. Whether her partner will also acquire parental responsibility depends on the following factors:

  • The legal status of the relationship
  • How the child was conceived

It is outside of the scope of this blog to provide more detailed information on this issue and/or parental responsibility for same-sex fathers, and independent legal advice is suggested.

Am I still responsible for my child even if I don't have the legal status of parental responsibility?

Even if you do not have parental responsibility, you are legally obligated to financially support your child. Parental responsibility encompasses the rights and duties towards the child, but the obligation of child maintenance to support and ensure the welfare of the child remains, regardless of legal parental responsibility.

It's important to understand that the law aims to protect the interests and welfare of the child above all, ensuring they are provided for and cared for adequately by their parents.

Applying for parental responsibility

Gaining parental responsibility is a legal process that allows parents and guardians to make important decisions in a child's life. This section will guide you through who can apply for parental responsibility, how to sign a parental responsibility agreement, and the steps to apply for a parental responsibility order.

Who can apply for parental responsibility?

  • Unmarried fathers: Fathers who are not married to the mother at the time of the child's birth and are not listed on the birth certificate (for children born before December 1, 2003, in England and Wales).
  • Step-parents: Step-parents who are married or in a civil partnership with one of the child's biological parents can apply, provided they have the consent of every person with parental responsibility.
  • Same -sex partners: Same-sex partners who are married to or in a civil relationship with the birth mother may automatically acquire parental responsibility depending on the circumstances of the conception. If they do not, they can apply for parental responsibility.
  • Others: In certain circumstances, individuals such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other family members can apply for parental responsibility if they are caring for the child in the absence of parents with parental responsibility.

Signing a parental responsibility agreement

A Parental Responsibility Agreement is a formal arrangement that enables both parents or a parent and another significant caregiver, such as a step-parent, to share the legal rights and responsibilities for a child. The agreement is a simple way to formalise this understanding.

This is particularly common in situations where, for instance, the father is not married to the mother and wants to ensure they have a legal say in important decisions affecting their child's life.

It's a preferred option because it's based on mutual consent, avoiding the need for court intervention, which can be both time-consuming and expensive. Where parents are in disagreement of parental responsibilities, family mediation can help you and your ex partner explore your options and put your child’s needs first.

Using mediation for parental responsibility agreements

Family mediation can be helpful in reaching a Parental Responsibility Agreement, especially if there is initially some disagreement or if the parties need help in communicating their wishes effectively.

A mediator can help clarify the implications of the agreement, ensure that all parties understand their rights and responsibilities, and assist in drafting an arrangement that reflects everyone's best interests, particularly those of the child.

Child-inclusive mediation: It's worth noting that mediation can often be child-inclusive, particularly when the discussions significantly impact the child's future. In child-inclusive mediation, the mediator might engage directly with the child, asking them questions when appropriate, to understand their feelings and perspectives.

This approach ensures that the child has the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings, aligning with the principle that the child's best interests are paramount. For more insight into this process, see child inclusive mediation.

Apply for a parental responsibility order

A Parental Responsibility Order is a legally enforceable document granted by a court that outlines the specific rights, duties, and responsibilities a person holds in relation to a child.

This order might be sought when a formal agreement cannot be reached between the parties involved. For example, if one parent is unwilling to sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement, or if there are disputes about the extent of involvement one should have in the child's life.

The court will consider a variety of reasons when deciding whether the order will be approved, such as:

  • The applicant's degree of commitment to the child;
  • The state of the applicant’s current relationship with the child;
  • The reason for making the application.

How it works:

  • Application: Completing the appropriate application form (Form C1 for England and Wales) and submitting it to the family court, along with a fee unless exemptions apply.
  • Evidence: You may need to provide evidence that you have a meaningful relationship with the child and that gaining parental responsibility would be in the child's best interest.
  • Court hearing: A court hearing will be scheduled, during which your reasons for applying will be considered. The court will assess whether granting parental responsibility would be in the best interest of the child.
  • Decision: If the court is satisfied that it would be in the child's best interest, it will grant a parental responsibility order.

Obtaining an order is inherently more complex, often involving legal applications, court hearings, and the presentation of evidence to demonstrate why granting parental responsibility is in the best interest of the child. Because of this, it’s often recommended that parents try to come to a parental responsibility agreement in mediation first.


Navigating parental responsibility can be complex, but understanding the pathways to legally establish your role in a child's life is crucial for every parent and caregiver.

Whether through a Parental Responsibility Agreement or a court-issued Parental Responsibility Order, the goal remains the same: to ensure the well-being and best interests of the child are at the forefront of all decisions.

Mediation plays a vital role in these processes, providing a space for open communication and mutual understanding, which can lead to amicable solutions even in the most challenging circumstances.

Consider Mediation First for professional, impartial guidance aimed at facilitating constructive discussions. We specialise in family mediation, aiding in constructive discussions about parental responsibility, child arrangements, and more.

Get in touch to learn more about how we can help your situation.