Parental responsibility – when should a parent be prevented from knowing their child?

November 23, 2023

You may have seen in the news recently that a mother was successful in obtaining an order in the family court preventing a father from contacting their daughter after the court found that he posed an “extremely high risk of sexual and emotional harm”.

In this case, the child’s father was imprisoned for committing sexual offences against children. Despite his convictions, he still held parental responsibility for the parties daughter. The mother who reported that she was “repeatedly raped” by the father, applied to the family court to remove his parental responsibility and to ban him from contacting their daughter until she turned 18. Whilst his convictions meant he was banned from having future contact with children, it did not prevent him from seeking contact with his own child.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is all the rights, responsibilities, duties and authority that a person has in relation to a child and their property. When we talk about parental responsibility we try to focus on the parent’s duties in relation to their child/ren. In practice this means making important decisions in relation to a child. For example, where a child goes to school, what medical treatment the child can have or not have and determining the religion that the child should be brought up with.

Who has parental responsibility?

All mothers have parental responsibility. A father will have parental responsibility if he is married to the mother or he is listed on the birth certificate (after a certain date).

If a father does not have parental responsibility, there are several ways that this can be acquired.

Can parental responsibility be terminated or removed?

The only way parental responsibility can be terminated or removed is by the court. The removal of parental responsibility is seen as a draconian measure and not a step that the court will take lightly. In order to take this step, the court must consider that it is no longer in the child’s best interests for the parental responsibility to continue. Such applications are not common.

So, what happened in the recently reported case?

Whilst the court had concerns about the father’s behaviour which extended beyond his criminal convictions, it appears that his parental responsibility was not removed completely, but heavily restricted. The court ordered that the child continue living with her mother and that her father was prevented from contacting her until she reached the age of 18. The judge said that the father posed “an extremely high risk of sexual and emotional harm” to the child and that the mother “needs to free” from any fear about him locating close to them in the future.

The Judge decided that the father should be informed if the child leaves the country permanently (but not where she is) or is in a life threatening condition. However, the father will not be able to make decisions about the child’s health, her education or her travelling abroad and the mother will not have to consult with him about this.

Whilst the mother is pleased with the decision made by the court, it has been an incredibly difficult process for her. She said “imagine any mother trying to sleep easy knowing a paedophile father could request access to their child. It’s horrific.” The mother and her family are calling for conversations to take place about how the legal system can help people in similar situations. The mother had legal representation throughout the process, but she is acutely aware that this may not be possible for everyone. Significant changes to legal aid came into effect in 2013 which has meant that funding was withdrawn for almost all family law cases. With these cuts, it makes it very difficult for parents to go to court in these types of situations where they do not have the money to fund legal representation and they may not wish to represent themselves.  The family have suggested that others could avoid expensive court cases if the law is changed to automatically suspend parental rights from convicted paedophiles and for these only to be restored if the offender applies to the family court.

Fortunately, these types of cases are rare, however, if you do need advice on issues around parental responsibility or court applications relating to children generally, please do get in touch with one of our expert solicitors.

Written by Emerald Priscott