The concept of parental responsibility [PR] is defined as “the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority of a parent” (Children Act 1989). In other words, having parental rights for a child grants you the authority to act as a parent.

PR allows you to make the following decisions (amongst others) in relation to your children:

  1. Consenting to medical treatment and making decisions regarding their education and religion;
  2. Approving a decision to change your child’s surname; and
  3. Having the right to be consulted about key decisions connected with your child’s upbringing and movements (e.g. moving home; granting consent for your child to be taken out of the UK; decisions over health, education, religion and change of name).

It also means that you are obliged to consult any other persons with parental responsibility, before making any decisions relating to the child’s home, education, religion, medical treatment, change of name, etc.

What parental responsibility does not automatically give you, are all the legal rights and status associated with those of a child’s biological parents.

What sort of difference does this make?

Well, to use one important example, a child for which you have parental rights will not automatically inherit from you upon your death (as a child would from their biological parents under the Intestacy Rules). If you have any concerns in this area, we can direct you towards rhw’s private client team, who will be able to assist by providing guidance on the drafting of a will.

Another distinction between parental responsibility and a child’s biological parents is that PR subsists only until your child reaches the age of 18. The Court however can intervene in this situation if it is considered appropriate to do so.

Who Gains Automatic Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility is granted automatically to a child’s birth mother. If you are the husband of the child’s birth mother at the time that the child is born, you are also granted automatic PR.

As the civil partner of the child’s birth mother, you will have automatic parental responsibility if you are treated as your child’s parent under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008.

If you are an adoptive parent, you are given PR by virtue of your adoption order.

Any other persons will not have any automatic right to PR, but may well be able to acquire parental responsibility.

The Situation with Regard to Unmarried Fathers and Lesbian Partners

This is an important area to consider and one that creates a great deal of uncertainty. As previously mentioned, as an unmarried father you do not have automatic parental responsibility when your child is born, even though you are his or her biological father. In this situation you will only be granted parental responsibility if your name is entered on the child’s birth certificate (provided that your child was born after 1 December 2003).

Other ways that unmarried fathers and lesbian partners can acquire parental responsibility include:

  1. Marrying or entering a civil partnership with the child’s mother;
  2. Entering into a written agreement with the mother; or
  3. Obtaining a parental responsibility Order from the Court.

If You are a Step-Parent

If you are the spouse or civil partner of a parent with parental responsibility for a child, but you are not a biological parent yourself, you are classified (in the eyes of the law) as a step-parent of that child. If this is the case you can acquire PR by:

  1. Signing an agreement with the child’s other parents who hold PR; or
  2. Obtaining a parental responsibility Order from the Court.

As well as conventional step-parents, these rules apply to families created through assisted reproduction, including:

  • Lesbian civil partners who are not treated as parents in their own right (e.g. in respect of children conceived before 6 April 2009);
  • Intended parents in certain surrogacy situations; and
  • Non-biological gay fathers conceiving through surrogacy or co-parenting.

The Position for Non-Parents

If you are not a parent or a step-parent, you cannot directly acquire parental responsibility. You might however be able to acquire it indirectly by obtaining a Residence Order from the Court. The situation varies according to your own status and the nature of your relationship with the child concerned, so if this applies to you we urge you to seek legal advice in order to determine your position.


If you do not have parental responsibility and you need to make an application under the Children Act 1989 for example, for any of the following, you will need to apply to the Court for PR at the same time:

  1. Residence Order;
  2. Defined Contact Order;
  3. Specific Issue Order; or
  4. Prohibited Steps Order.

In all cases where there is Court proceedings to determine whether or not to award parental responsibility, the paramount consideration is the welfare of the child.

See also fathers’ rights.

rhw Solicitors in Guildford (logo) If you have concerns relating to any area of parental responsibility or wider family law matters, rhw’s family team are happy to discuss the matter over the phone, by e-mail or meet with you in person.

You can contact rhw’s family law solicitors by calling 01483 302000, completing our contact form or e-mailing the family law team at