Fathers in the UK face unique challenges when sorting through divorce and family law issues, particularly as it pertains to child custody and child arrangements. As a whole, the divorce system seems to be predisposed against men and fathers. Child custody matters in particular seem to disproportionately favor the mother when couples opt for divorce.

Here are statistics that illustrate the state of fathers’ rights in the UK:

  • Mothers automatically have parental responsibility for the child from birth. Fathers must be married to the child’s mother, be listed on the birth certificate or sign a parental responsibility application form (which can only be completed with the mother’s consent) (UK).
  • Even if a father has parental responsibility, he is not necessarily granted the right to contact with the child. He is, however, responsible for maintenance payments (UK).
  • There are 2 million lone parents with dependent children. Women account for 91% of lone parents with dependent children (Office for National Statistics).
  • More than 80% of children of separated parents live exclusively or mainly with their mother (University of Oxford Department of Social Policy and Social Work).
  • 6% of children live only with their mother while just 2.4% live only with their father (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development survey).
  • 20% to 30% of non-resident fathers have not seen their children in the last year. Another 20% to 40% see their children less than once per week (The Centre For Social Justice).
  • More than 1 million children have no contact with their father (The Centre For Social Justice).
  • Between 75% and 86% of all contact applications come from fathers (University of Oxford Department of Social Policy and Social Work).
  • Women are the party granted the divorce in 66% of cases (Office for National Statistics).

What rights do fathers have post-divorce in the UK

If you’ve recently split with your partner and you have children together, it’s important to know where you stand in terms of your fathers’ rights to see your child. You need to understand what your rights are as a father to have your child overnight, what a Child Arrangement Order is and what is considered reasonable access for a father.

fathers' rights in the UKWhat are a father’s rights to have their child overnight?

When it comes to a father’s right to have their child overnight, it initially comes down to the age of the child in question. The welfare of the child is always the court’s top priority, so those under 18 months old are considered suitable to visit their father (or noncustodial parent) for a few hours at a time, but due to their need for routine and familiarity, overnight stays are generally not recommended. As the child gets older, they’re in a better position to stay away from their custodial parent, and usually by the age of three, longer visits can be arranged.

It is possible to agree with the mother when and how you see your child away from the courts and for how long, but in less amicable divorces, it would be sensible to have the time split outlined by a Child Arrangement Order which is set out by the court.

What is a Child Arrangement order?

This essentially sets out who the child or children will live with and when and how the child will have contact with their other parent. It is possible to arrange so that the child lives with both parents, but this isn’t always the best outcome for the child. If it is agreed that the child is to live with one parent, then the custodial parent automatically has overall parental responsibility.

A Child Arrangement Order is also used to set out the days or hours that the child is to spend with their father, should the mother have overall parental responsibility. This includes overnight stays, and these can be worked out so that additional nights are possible during specific times of the year, for example seasonal or school holidays.

What is considered reasonable access for a father?

‘Reasonable access’ is a broad term and it’s important to remember that this can mean something entirely different for different families. The courts deliberately do not dictate what reasonable access equates to for this reason. As previously mentioned above, it is possible to arrange contact with your child away from the courts, and this is a popular route for many families as it means both parties can be fluid and work around each other when timings may need to be altered. If, however, you’re unable to reach a decision or want a schedule that’s more set-in stone, going through the courts is another option for parents.

There are certain father’s visitation rights that need to be considered in any arrangement. Fathers have the right to:  

  1. Visit their child at a designated time.
  2. Enjoy activities with their child.
  3. Be free from any control by the other parent during their visitation.
  4. Spend all their allotted time with their child without any interference.

Things to consider when discussing reasonable access include the child’s schooling arrangements, your own personal commitments and working arrangements, the child’s age, plus any activities the child takes part in.

Does reasonable access for fathers vary throughout the year?

As briefly touched upon in the Child Arrangements Order section, reasonable access for fathers has the potential to fluctuate during the year, and this is mainly down to term time and school holidays. During term time, depending on your personal circumstances, reasonable access might be agreed to be every other weekend or similar, however during school holidays, you may want to look at agreeing a different approach so that the father is able to look after their child for longer or more frequent periods of time. Again, this can be discussed privately with your ex-partner, or if there are difficulties, you may wish to seek the help of the courts to organise an agreement.

What is reasonable access for fathers living abroad?

If you’re in a position where you’ve moved abroad and are unable to see your child on a regular basis, there are some options available which still provide reasonable access. For example, you may wish to set up weekly video calls or something similar to maintain regular indirect contact with your child. Planning in advance with the mother for when you are back in the country would also be a useful way to ensure that reasonable access is possible when you’re in the UK.

What rights do unmarried fathers have post-divorce in the UK?

Many unmarried fathers can, understandably, become confused or frustrated when it comes to the rights they have in relation to their children and family law conflicts. This is often because the law is clearer in people’s minds when it comes to fathers in marriages than it is in relation to unmarried fathers.

Often fathers assume that they have an automatic right to parental responsibility of their biological child. While all children have a right to have a relationship with their father in the UK, the law may not always be that clear cut when it comes to unmarried couples. That is because unmarried fathers often have different rights to the mother (or compared to a married father). This is often particularly true if a couple remain unmarried and then later decide to part ways.

The law in the UK is clear that the biological mother automatically has parental responsibility over the child. However, a biological father that is not married to the child’s mother only inherits parental responsibility in one of few circumstances. Parental responsibility is what gives a parent responsibilities and rights for that child. Without parental responsibility, fathers can have less rights when it comes to their child.

Unmarried fathers can however obtain parental responsibility over their child if:

  1. A family court awards that father parental responsibility. This is most likely to be via a parental responsibility order or another order which says that the child should live with the father
  2. The mother and father reach a legally binding, written agreement which gives the father parental responsibility
  3. The mother and father jointly registered the birth on the child’s birth certificate (provided the child was born after 1 December 2003).

If none of the above apply to you and you are an unmarried father, then it is likely that you do not automatically have parental responsibility and will have few rights in relation to your child. This does mean that the biological mother is able to make decisions about the child’s upbringing, without needing consent, or to consult the father. In some circumstances you may be able to make an appeal to the courts in relation to this.

Who automatically receives parental responsibility?

Many people assume that both the biological mother and father automatically receive parental responsibility over their children, however this is not always the case, especially when the couple are unmarried. There are only a few circumstances in which someone has parental responsibility over a child (without a court order or other legal agreement).

These are when:

  • The parent is the biological mother of the child
  • The parent is the biological father of the child AND was married to the biological mother when the child was born
  • The parent is the biological father AND the child born was after 1 December 2003 AND they are named as the father on the birth certificate
  • Any person legally adopts that child

What does parental responsibility mean?

Parental responsibility is a set of rights and responsibilities in relation to a child. Anyone can have parental responsibility for a child in the right circumstances, however in most cases this is the biological mother and father of the child (if they married). The biological mother almost always has parental responsibility. This is not always the case for unmarried fathers (see section above).

Having parental responsibility for a child means being responsible for several elements of that child’s life and upbringing, including:

  • Making important discussions about the child’s education
  • Making important decisions about the child’s healthcare needs
  • The wellbeing and care of the child
  • Feeding and clothing the child
  • Making important decisions about whether the child should reside
  • Representing the child during legal proceedings
  • Making important decisions about the child’s religious upbringing

Crucially if a parent has parental responsibility it means that they have an important say in their child’s life and are able to give or withhold their consent on important issues relating to how their child is raised.

Can parental responsibility end or be revoked?

The short answer is yes. Parental responsibility for a child ends when they reach the age of 18 and become a legal adult. There are also other circumstances in which parental responsibility can end, such as if an adoption order is made or if another court order requires that parental responsibility ends. This only happens in specific family circumstances or where a court deems it necessary for the protection or wellbeing of the child.

Can an unmarried father obtain parental responsibility of their child?

The good news is that there are a few ways in which unmarried fathers can gain parental responsibility of their biological children (if they do not already have this). To obtain parental responsibility of the child they will often need to:

  • Enter into a marriage with the biological mother of their biological child
  • Sign a formal, written agreement (with the biological mother) which awards them parental responsibility
  • Get a court to grant the father a parental responsibility order

In many cases unmarried fathers can gain parental responsibility of their biological child through a formal agreement with the mother. However, if this is not possible, then the unmarried father does have the right to apply to the court to obtain it. In considering whether parental responsibility should be granted, the court will normally consider things like the unmarried father’s commitment to the child, the existing relationship between father and child and the case the father puts forward for parental responsibility. However, the courts will also take the child’s best interests into account as the key factor when deciding the outcome of an application for a parental responsibility order.

Do I have a right to access my child if I have parental responsibility?

Many people assume that if a parent has parental responsibility then they also have a right to access to their child. However, this is not always the case, especially when the parents part ways, and the child resides with one parent.

Fortunately, many parents agree who the child should live with and access rights when they part ways. Sadly, this is not always the case. If a disagreement exists on where the child should live and who should have access to them, then it is not uncommon for parents to try mediation and negotiation via family solicitors before going to the courts.

Where negotiation fails, an unmarried father may be able to apply to the courts for a child arrangements order. If granted, a child arrangements order would determine where the child lives and who has access to them (and when). Although relatively rare, it is possible to apply to get a ruling in favour of your child living with you as an unmarried father, especially if you have serious concerns about your child’s safety and wellbeing.

In some cases, fathers can also apply for orders which prohibit the other parent from making decisions about the child’s life on key issues. When granting any order, the child’s best interests will be carefully considered as the primary factor in the ruling.

Representing Fathers’ Rights

Cordell & Cordell divorce solicitors specialise in representing fathers’ rights in marriage, divorce, child custody and child arrangements, and more . We strive towards an equal playing field which ensures the best possible outcomes for all members of the family.

For more information about fathers’ rights, refer to our extensive list of resources about divorce and family law.