Disputes can arise when separated parents disagree on what is best for their child, which is why it’s important to understand your rights as a parent. Having parental rights over a child enables you to make decisions as a parent and legally enforce those decisions. This is even more important when parents are not on amicable terms or where there is a dispute regarding the upbringing of the child.

Having a child does not automatically mean you have the legal right to make important decisions about them. Therefore making sure you understand your legal position and steps you can take in the event you do not currently have parental rights in law, is vital to ensuring you have a say in what you think is best for your child.

What are parental rights?

Parental rights are contained in section 3 of the Children Act 1989 and do not exist as a right in isolation. Instead, they form one aspect of a wider legal duty known as ‘parental responsibility’.

Parental responsibility refers to your legal duties and responsibilities as a parent to ensure the wellbeing and best interests of your child. This can include the right to make or be involved in decisions about the child’s welfare, education and medical treatment. It also includes decisions such as choosing the child’s surname or religion.

Parental responsibility does not however extend to everyday decisions or to how the child is cared for when in the other parent’s care. In addition, having parental rights does not entitle you to act in any way contrary to any orders (such as a Child Arrangements Order) made in relation to the child.

Who has parental rights?

The law currently states that biological mothers will have automatic parental rights for their child.

Having parental rights as a father depends on the circumstances at the time of the birth of the child.

According to section 2(1) of the Children Act 1989, fathers married to the child’s mother at the time of birth will have automatic parental rights. However, if the father was not married at the time of birth, they won’t have parental rights unless they are named on the birth ceritifcate and the birth was registered on or after 1stDecember 2003.

Marriage also impacts parental rights in same-sex relationships. If you were in a civil partnership or same-sex marriage at the time of birth, both parents will have parental rights.

If you are the same-sex partner of the child’s mother and you are not married or in a civil partnership, you do not automatically have parental responsibility.

Where a party disputes paternity and you were married at the time of conception or are named on the birth certificate, parental rights will be enforceable until it is proven by DNA that the father of the child is not its biological parent, or if the court orders it.

Conversely, if you are neither of these things and wish to get parental rights as a father, but the mother disputes paternity, you will have to prove paternity before applying for parental responsibility.

What does it mean if I don’t have parental rights?

If you don’t have parental rights, this means you have no legal right to enforce important decisions in regards to the child’s upbringing; such as their education, welfare, religion and medical treatment and even where they live.

However, parents without parental responsibility are still reqyired to meet financial obligations towards the child such as through child maintenance.

How can I get parental rights?

There are two ways in which to obtain parental rights separate from marriage or being registered on the child’s birth certificate.

If you are the biological father of the child and both you and the child’s mother agree to you having parental responsibility, you can both sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement (Form C(PRA1)) and send it off to your local county or family proceedings court to be signed and witnessed by the courts. You must send two copies into the courts in order for it to be binding.

Similarly, if you are in a same-sex partnership but are not civil partners, you can both sign a Parental Responsibility Agreement to obtain parental rights using Form C(PRA 3).

If you wish to register a step-parent as having parental rights, both parents with parental responsibility must agree to the step-parent also acquiring it. You can do this by completing a Step-Parent Parental Responsibility Agreement using Form C(PRA2) and sending it to your local county or family proceedings court to be witnessed.

If there is a dispute over parental rights, you can apply to the court for a Parental Responsibility Order without the consent of the other parent by using Form C1. This form can also be used where there is a concern of the child being at risk of harm. In which case, you will need to fill in a supplementary C1A form.

Applying for a court order costs £215 and will need to be sent to your local county or family proceedings court.

Can parental rights be revoked?

If you have automatic parental rights by marriage, they cannot be revoked unless it is subsequently proven that you are not the child’s biological parent.

If you have obtained parental rights by way of a court order, or as an unmarried father registered on the birth certificate,  the court has the power to revoke these rights under section 4(2A) of the Children Act 1989.

Where you have obtained parental rights via either of those channels, your rights can be revoked by the parent with parental responsibility (usually the mother). This must be made by court order and will usually only be withdrawn when there is a risk to the child’s welfare.

This also applies to the second female parent in a same-sex partnership, except where they were married or in a civil partnership at the time of birth as per section 4ZA(1) of the Children’s Act 1989.

Court order can also revoke parental rights of a step-parent. The application to revoke step-parent parental rights can be made by either parent with parental responsibility, or if the court agrees, by the child themselves (section 4A(3) Children Act 1989).

Parental rights also end when parental responsibility ends, which is usually when the child reaches 18 unless otherwise stated on a court order.

Why legal advice helps

Your legal status as a parent has various implications that are not always clear and can cause distress should a conflict between parents arise.

Therefore it is imperative to seek legal advice as soon as possible if there is a change in your relationship circumstances such as separation so that the rights and responsibilities of both parties are clear. This way you can avoid both the emotional and financial distress that may arise through lengthy court proceedings.


Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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