Parental responsibility

Parental Responsibility describes adults who have legal responsibility for a child. This includes choosing where they live, go to school and a host of decisions regarding their upbringing.

Although the word “parental” might suggest that this responsibility will be automatically given to the biological mother and father (unless the child has been formally adopted), this is not always the case and will depend on the relationship of the parents at the time of the child’s birth.

Who has automatic responsibility?

The only person who always has automatic parental responsibility is the child’s mother. The father can also have automatic responsibility but only if married to the mother at the time of birth and documented on the birth certificate.

If the parents aren’t married at birth or the father is not denoted on the birth certificate, he will not automatically have responsibility and will need to obtain a Parental Responsibility Agreement or Order. This option is also available for step-parents who are not biologically related to the child but who intend to take a parental role in their upbringing.

Why do you need parental responsibility?

This is important for several reasons, but the most important one is that only someone with this responsibility can authorise medical treatment. Without it, you will not have the right to dictate any matter of importance regarding the child.


If all parents with responsibility agree, a step parent or other person important to the child can gain this by entering into an Agreement with the other parents.

This must be legally signed by all parents and registered with a court; an informal agreement will not suffice. The existing parents maintain their responsibility and another person is added.

By way of illustration, take a situation in which the mother and father have separated or divorced and the mother has remarried. If the step father wants to share responsibility for the child and both biological parents agree, this responsibility can be shared three ways.

This does not imply that the mother and step father can ‘gang up’ on the biological father by voting 2:1 on a given issue. Any disputes will need to be resolved amicably or by the court regardless as to how many individuals have responsibility.


If an agreement cannot be reached, an Order granting responsibility may be obtainable. The courts only ever act in the best interests of the child and consider the relationships between the child and all relevant adults; any disruption that the Order could cause; and the views of all parents.

Other relationships

An agreement or Order can only be granted to a child’s parent or step parent. If you are a former partner of the child’s parent, a grandparent or other carer, you will need a Child Arrangements Order (CAO) dictating that the child lives with you and that you have responsibility for them for the duration of the CAO.

If you are a step parent whose relationship with the biological parent has ended, you could still obtain a responsibility order provided that you are still married and can show a strong commitment to the child.


Where a child has been raised as a “child of the family”, the parents of that “family” may be obligated to provide for the child even if they don’t have parental responsibility.

These provisions will usually be made for child maintenance, property transfers or school fees. The court will consider a number of factors in determining who has financial responsibility for the child including assumed responsibility, the child’s financial needs, the parents’ financial situations, whether anyone else has responsibility for the child and whether the step parent believed that the child was theirs.

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