Over the centuries, we have evolved an idea as to what constitutes a conventional family unit. This so called ‘nuclear family’ has traditionally consisted of a father figure, a mother and the obligatory 2.4 children – But in a modern society, this idea of the ‘perfect’ family unit has evolved into something completely different.
We have moved away from the traditional idea of the nuclear family. Increasingly, families in our society include single parents living with new partners or families, single parent families living alone as well as children being raised by same sex couples. While the law attempts to keep up with this social evolution by making legislative change to reflect it, one area seriously lagging behind relates to the rights of ‘unmarried fathers’.
Is this really that big of a problem? Let us consider the statistics:
In 2011, nearly 50 % (or one half) of all babies born in England and Wales were born to parents who were not legally married. So last year alone, over 350,000 babies were born to unmarried fathers. What rights do these unmarried fathers have? If there are so many unmarried fathers in the U.K, why do so few of them (or us) know about their rights in relation to their own children?
There are many fathers (married and unmarried) who do not know what their legal rights are. This may be because unmarried fathers have no ‘automatic’ rights over their own children but must instead ‘acquire’ the same rights as married fathers.
What rights do unmarried fathers enjoy? In legal terms, the parent-child relationship is governed by a concept known as ‘parental responsibility’. Parental responsibility reflects the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority a parent has over their child. Although the mother of a child automatically acquires parental responsibility, the situation for unmarried fathers is not quite so simple.
As an experienced family lawyer, it saddens me to witness clients in a situation where they do not even know what their rights are, and I am always pleased to inform and educate my clients fully of their rights as unmarried fathers. For some reason, it always comes as a shock to these fathers to learn that they have the legal right to see their child or to have a say in their children’s lives including for example what school their child attends – I must say it is gratifying to see these fathers empowered by the advice we provide . I enjoy educating them about their rights as unmarried fathers and teaching them how they can enforce these rights.
If you want to help decide which school your child attends, if you need to give or withhold consent for medical treatment for your child or if you want to have a say in your child’s religious upbringing, then you must first enjoy a degree of parental responsibility.
Having parental responsibility is crucial in allowing unmarried fathers to participate in the upbringing of their child. For example without parental responsibility, an unmarried father cannot stop his child going abroad without his knowledge or consent nor does he have the right to access his own child’s school or medical records.
Yet despite this, unmarried fathers remain liable to pay child support and maintenance. The Child Support Agency demands money from unmarried fathers whether or not that father has parental responsibility. Unmarried fathers sometimes end up paying maintenance for their children despite the fact that they are denied the right to make crucial decisions on behalf of their child. In today’s modern, inclusive and liberal society, is this really fair?
Do I already have parental responsibility?
Some unmarried fathers do nothing about their rights because they mistakenly believe that they already have rights over their child. It comes as a shock to them when they realise that rights for unmarried fathers are almost non-existent and that simply being their child’s biological father is not enough for them to achieve parental responsibility.
The Adoption and Children Act (2002) made important changes regarding the rights of unmarried fathers. Now, unmarried fathers who are registered on their child’s birth certificate can share equal rights with the mother. Prior to this an unmarried father did not have parental responsibility even where his name was registered on the birth certificate.
How do I acquire parental responsibility?
The rights of unmarried fathers can be enforced in the following ways;
- Firstly if you have not been named as your child’s father on the birth certificate, you can still acquire parental responsibility by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with your child’s mother.
- However, if she does not agree to this, then your rights as an unmarried father can still be enforced by making an application for a ‘parental responsibility order’ at court.
- Other ways to protect your rights as an unmarried father include applying for a residence order, becoming the child’s primary carer or by marrying the child’s mother.
How do I apply for a parental responsibility order?
Increasingly, I find myself making applications to the courts for an order that will protect the rights of these unmarried fathers. I spend time individually with these fathers in order to satisfy myself that any court action being contemplated is always in the interests of their child’s welfare.
Before making an order, the court will look at:
a) The father’s overall commitment to his child since it was born
b) The current state of the father’s relationship with the child and
c) The father’s reasons for making the application.
It is not a question of ‘getting one over’ on the mother; it is a question of achieving balance for the family unit as a whole. By using the court system to help these unmarried fathers, nearly all of my clients now enjoy joint parental responsibility together with the mothers of their children.
I take a holistic approach when dealing with families as a whole. It is important to me that all family members are treated fairly and that the rights of unmarried fathers are not sidelined simply because they are unmarried. I believe that any attempt by a father to actively participate in the life of his child should be encouraged, for the good of that child.
If you are an unmarried father unsure about your legal rights in relation to your child, I recommend you seek immediate legal advice to avoid losing out on exercising your paternal rights. Saracens’ Family Law department has specialist knowledge in this area.
If you would like further information on the rights of unmarried fathers or how to achieve parental responsibility, contact Saracens on 0203 5883500.
Saracens Family Law Department
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