There is sometimes a misconception that once a parent has removed themselves from the family unit, especially for a long time, they have given up all rights and influence on how the children are raised. However, that is not true, and even if a parent is absent for a prolonged period, they still have a right to be consulted before key decisions are made about the child.
Current legislation does not grant an absentee parent any ‘rights’, as such, to make direct contact with their child but neither does it prevent it. In such cases the biggest conflict usually centres on contact, which in most cases needs to be determined either through mediation or through a court order.
The bottom line is that whether a parent is absent for six months or six years, the rights of both the mother and the father do not change, assuming they both have Parental Responsibility.
What is parental responsibility?
Parental Responsibility is defined in law as being: “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”. This is more focused on the parent’s duties and responsibilities towards the upbringing of the child, rather than their ‘rights’ to contact them.
In practical terms, it means that anyone with Parental Responsibility has a say in any decisions made about the child’s education, health, well-being and a host of other everyday decisions including:
- where the child goes to school,
- choosing, registering or changing the child’s name,
- consenting to some medical treatment,
- access to the child’s medical records,
- giving permission for the child to spend extended time abroad,
- representing the child in legal proceedings, and
- the religious upbringing of the child.
If decisions cannot be made jointly about important decisions for a child such as the school attended, a parent, with parental responsibility, has the right to make an application to the court for a specific issue order. This is under section 8 of the Children Act 1989. It is defined as “an order giving directions for the purpose of determining a specific question which has arisen, or which may arise, in connection with any aspect of parental responsibility for a child.”
Remember though, Parental Responsibility does not grant any automatic contact rights to the child, especially if a court has granted sole residency to one parent, or the right to automatically know where the child is living.
Who has Parental Responsibility?
Presently, by default, mothers have Parental Responsibility. Fathers only gain Parental Responsibility if:
- they are married to the mother (before or after the child was born),
- named on the child’s birth certificate (if their child was born after 1st December 2003), either originally or through re registering the birth to include the fathers name
- the father can be granted Parental Responsibility Order (PRO) by the mother by agreement or by the Court.
There are other ways of getting this privilege, such as being named as the resident parent or becoming the child’s guardian, but a PRO is the usual method.
In the majority of cases where a parent has been absent, contact is the key issue and the most contentious one, but with a little bit of help from a family law expert or mediator, resolutions can be achieved. The welfare of the child must be the number one priority throughout the process, regardless of how long the absentee parent has been away, and both the courts and any legal representatives will always ensure that their interests are put first.
The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.