Rights of Absent Parents05-Aug-2019

By Diana Williams, Partner, Family Law

What rights do absent parents have if they come back into a child's life after several years' away?

The concept of a traditional family unit has changed, and, in some situations, this can give rise to problems. Figures from 2016 suggest that not only does it have a huge impact on the mental wellbeing of the family unit, but it has a financial impact too. According to the Relationships Foundation’s report ‘The Cost of Family Failure Index’, the economic impact of family breakdown in 2016 was higher than the UK defence budget, at an astonishing £48billion. That breaks down to an individual cost for each and every taxpayer of £1,820.

There are those that say once a parent (in the majority of cases, the father) has removed themselves from the family unit, they give up all rights and influence on how the children are then brought up. However, that is not true, and even if a parent is absent for a prolonged period, they still have a right to influence how the children are brought up. If the parent’s name is on the birth certificate, then they are deemed to have Parental Responsibility under the Children’s Act 1989.

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’ over them.

In practical terms, it means that anyone with Parental Responsibility has a say in any decisions made about the child’s education, health, wellbeing 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 time abroad
  • representing the child in legal proceedings
  • the religious upbringing of the child.
  • What Parental Responsibility does not grant, though, is any automatic access rights to spend time with the child, especially if a court has made a Child Arrangement Order in favour of one parent, or the right to automatically know where the child is living.

    Who has Parental Responsibility?
    Mothers automatically have Parental Responsibility. Married fathers also have it, and do not lose that right if they divorce the child’s mother. Fathers married to the child’s mother also have it, and do not lose that right if they divorce the child’s mother. Since 2003, unmarried fathers also automatically get that right if they are named on the child’s birth certificate, there is also the option to re-register the birth to include the father’s name, but step-parents and grandparents do not have parental responsibility.

    What does all of this mean?
    For absentee parents, the legislation does not provide families with any emotional support if a parent suddenly reappears after a long absence. It also doesn’t grant that absentee parent any ‘rights’ as such to make contact or have any major influence in the child’s life, outside of the individual clauses laid out by law. The biggest conflict usually centres around seeing the child, 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 (through Parental Responsibility) and the father do not change. In the majority of cases, seeing the child 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.

    For more information about our Family Law services, please contact a member of the Family Law team on 01244 356 789 or email info@cullimoredutton.co.uk

    Please note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.