Many unmarried fathers can, understandably, become confused or frustrated when it comes to the rights they have in relation to their children and family 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.

What rights do unmarried fathers have to their children in the United Kingdom?

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.

For more information or to book a consultation with one of our solicitors, call us on 0330 60 60 161.