Family breakups can often be distressing times for all involved. The press frequently reports on situations turning ugly, being unfair and too often suggest there is a difference between the rights of a father and mother in raising and seeing their children. Many parents in this situation do not see eye to eye or are so angry with the other parent that they use access to children as a pawn in a protracted process. Making fair and sensible arrangements in these circumstances can be extremely difficult.
This article is intended to provide a basic understanding of the law. However, if you are reading this article because it is directly applicable to you then we would strongly advocate seeking additional explanation regarding your specific legal position.
What rights does a father have?
A father living in the UK has a right to participate in decision making regarding his children and to see his children regularly. When exercised, this right is termed co-parenting. However, the legal rights of a father largely depend on whether or not he has parental rights. All fathers who are married to their child’s mother or listed on the birth certificate as the father, automatically have joint parental responsibility with the mother. A father who is not married to the mother, or not listed on the child’s birth certificate, can apply to the court to be granted parental responsibility or can come to an agreement with the mother for joint parental responsibility.
What does parental responsibility mean?
In law “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 the child’s property”. This covers all day-to-day decisions regarding a child but also how your child will be raised, by what name he or she will be known, which school he or she attends, religious upbringing, holidays abroad, what medical treatment is considered appropriate and so on. However, note the name is ‘parental responsibility’ and this refers to each parents’ responsibilities as a parent. The children are at the heart of any consideration and the parents’ ‘job’ or responsibility is to put the children first.
How can a father protect or enforce his rights?
If a father feels he is not being consulted about major issues in respect of his children, a straight-forward letter to the child’s mother that sets out the father’s wishes, the law, and his rights may help. The same applies if the father thinks that the children are not having the opportunity to spend enough time with him.
Mediation is always strongly encouraged for family disputes and generally can lead to a good outcome. However, if neither of these options are successful in arriving at a solution that both parties are happy with, then the only option is for a family court or a family law arbitrator to decide the matter for you. It is far better in terms of costs, delay and anxiety for parents and children if parents can work together, do their ‘job’ as parents and focus on their children. A judge or an arbitrator will not know your children better than you.
A court order is the only way to enforce legal rights. You can apply to the family court for a range of different orders that will allow a father to spend time with his child or make other arrangements such as living arrangements.
The starting point for any consideration by the court or an arbitrator is that the children have the right to have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship with both of their parents, provided it is safe to do so. A father can also request sole or a joint residency order, so that the child lives partially or totally at his home. This, of course, will depend on many factors including the wishes of the child, the relationship between the father and his child, siblings and other family members or support networks.
The aim of any court order will be to ensure the best outcome for the child and to protect them from physical or psychological harm. There will be a series of short hearings and the judge will then make a decision taking into account the evidence before him and the factors above. The child’s welfare is the paramount concern of any court case.
When couples separate it is often assumed that the children will remain with, and be cared for, by the mother, but this does not have to be the case. Children have the right to a meaningful relationship with their father, too. There are many different family arrangements that work for the adults and children. There is no ‘one size fits all’. The children are at the heart of any consideration and agreement is best if at all possible.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 0800 083 6051 or email [email protected].