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There is a range of orders a court can make to cement a parent’s Parental Responsibility.

Parental Responsibility Agreements

If the child’s birth has already been registered a father can complete an official Parental Responsibility Agreement which the mother must sign. The application is made on Form C(PRA1) which must be taken to the Court and be signed before a court officer and then sent to the Principal Registry of the Family Division which will rubber-stamp it. There is a fee to be paid of £200.

In Re X (Parental Responsibility Agreement: Children in Care) [2000] 1 FLR 517 a local authority tried to prevent a mother exercising her PR by signing an Agreement giving the father PR; the Court ruled the LA could not so prevent the mother, nor could it prevent a marriage which would automatically grant PR.

Step-Parental Responsibility Agreements

Under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which came into force on 30th December 2005 a mother can nominate her new husband or civil partner for PR via a Parental Responsibility Agreement. Ironically it is much easier for a step-father to acquire PR for a child than for a biological father to do so. This right does not extend to a father who is the victim of paternity fraud. The parties must be married or, if the new partner is of the same sex, there must be a registered civil partnership; an unmarried partner cannot become a step-parent.

The application for a Step Parental Responsibility Agreement is made on Form C(PRA2) and a fee of £200 must be paid. The agreement can only be overturned by a Court Order. If the father has PR the mother will need his consent and signature on the form, though his objection can be overruled if she applies for a Parental Responsibility Order from the court. If the father doesn’t have PR his consent is not required and he can’t object, so if you are a father and you don’t yet have PR you are strongly advised to apply for it now.

Parental Responsibility Orders

If the mother does not agree to the father having PR he will have to apply to the court under Section 4 of the Children Act 1989 for a Parental Responsibility Order (PRO) and argue why he feels his child will be disadvantaged by not having two parents with PR. He must emphasise to the court the benefits to the child, and his willingness to exercise his responsibilities (refer to the definition of PR in this section and to the Welfare Checklist). The application is made on Form C1 if there are no ongoing proceedings or Form C2 if there are ongoing proceedings and a fee of £200 must be paid.

Most applications are granted, even to fathers who will then be denied unsupervised contact; it must be emphasised that PR gives access to the courts and further Section 8 orders, but it is no guarantee that a father will be able to have a relationship with his child.

The awarding of a PRO must be in the child’s ‘best interests’, but the Act does not define the criteria a father must meet; the criteria used by the courts were established by Balcombe LJ in Re H (Minors) (Local Authority: Parental Rights) [1991] Fam 151 CA and so are known as the Re H criteria:

1. the degree of commitment which the father has shown towards the child;

2. the degree of attachment which exists between the father and the child;

3. the father’s reasons for applying for the order (this criterion allows the court to screen for improper reasons).

In Re G (A Minor) (Parental Responsibility Order) [1994] 1 FLR 504 Lord Justice Balcombe said,

The purpose of a Parental Responsibility order is to give the unmarried father a ‘locus standi’ in the child’s life by conferring on him the rights which would have been automatically his by right had he been married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth. The making of such an order would enable the father to contribute to the promotion of his daughter’s welfare and to play the natural part of her father in her future, although it did not give the father any rights of either residence or contact; and in the present case, the child remained in the care of the local authority, with contact being at its discretion.

Re H (Parental Responsibility) [1998] 1 FLR 855 established that these criteria represented a starting point and were not an exhaustive list; the child’s welfare remained paramount. For example, in Re M (Handicapped Child: Parental Responsibility) [2001] 2 FLR 342 a father who met the criteria was nevertheless denied PR because it would allegedly have put stress on the mother and interfered with her ability to care for the child.

The court will consider such questions as: was the father at the birth; does he continue contact; is he involved in the child’s education and development; does he contribute financially? Note that Re H shows attachment to be a two-way process.

If it is likely that the mother will oppose the application for PR, use this argument from Lord Justice Wall in Re S (Parental Responsibility) [1995] 2 FLR 648,

I have heard up and down the land, psychiatrists tell me how important it is that children grow up with a good self-esteem and how much they need to have a favourable positive image of the absent parent. It seems to me important, therefore, wherever possible, to ensure that the law confers upon a committed father that stamp of approval, lest the child grow up with some belief that he is in some way disqualified from fulfilling his role and that the reason for the disqualification is something inherent which will be inherited by the child, making her struggle to find her own identity all the more fraught.

Shared residence orders

If you are the child’s father, or a woman who is a parent by virtue of Section 43 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, you do not need to have Parental Responsibility to apply for a Residence Order. When the court makes such an order it must also make an order for PR.

If you are not the child’s biological father you cannot apply for a Parental Responsibility Order (PRO), but you can apply for a Shared Residence Order which will then automatically confer PR for the duration of the order. The order can also contain a clause stating that PR has been conferred, to make the point absolutely clear.

It can be seen that a non-biological mother – i.e. the mother’s female partner – has more rights in this context than a non-biological father – i.e. the mother’s male partner.

Step-fathers and step-mothers can also acquire PR for their partner’s children by applying to the Court for a Residence Order.

If the court makes the order it will say that the children should live with the named person – either permanently, or for the period specified in the order. If arrangements for step-children after a separation cannot be agreed, the court’s permission will be required before making an application for a Contact or Residence Order.