January 18 2000
Single fathers can now upgrade their status to have equal responsibility, says Louise Walker
Beppe and Sandra di Marco, the estranged parents in EastEnders, with Joe. Beppe has custody of the boy; Sandra is demanding access, which Beppe is reluctant to give. Photograph: BBC
Single dads can assert equal rightsby Louise Walker, The Times
Avid viewers of EastEnders and Coronation Street will have noticed a new set of phrases creeping into the dialogue between pints at The Vic and The Rover's Return. No longer are parents fighting over the "custody" of, or "access" to, their children; instead the scriptwriters have caught on to the fact these terms are outdated, replaced by phrases such as "parental responsibility", "residence" and "contact".
But one point that has not hit home, in Weatherfield or Albert Square, is that unmarried fathers do not automatically have the same responsibilities in respect of the major decisions for their children as the child's mother. However, there is now a way for single fathers to apply to have their status upgraded to have equal responsibility and contact.
Parental responsibility has never meant determining where a child lives, or having control over where the child is. It is making major decisions on behalf of children before they reach the age of 18, when they can make decisions for themselves. Those major decisions include education, religion, medical treatment, trips abroad, change of name and getting married before they are 18.
In England and Wales unmarried mothers can legitimately make the major decisions for the child without seeking the agreement of the father. With around 60,000 children born each year to unmarried couples and the number of failing relationships on the increase, these are issues central to many people's lives.
The upgrading of a father's responsibility can be achieved in two ways. First, there can be an agreement between the parents where they complete a standard form obtained either from their local court or from a solicitor. The agreement would take effect on registration at the main divorce registry in London.
The second route would be for the father to make an application to a court. This method exists because many parents simply cannot agree to share responsibility or have not continued their relationship after the birth. From the date of the order the father will have the same responsibility to make major decisions as the mother and neither will have the right to act without each other's consent.
But parental responsibility is not a licence for the father to interfere in the day-to-day running of the child's life (unless, of course, the child lives with him) - it is a passport to being involved in the key decisions that affect that child's life. Thus, if either parent wished to take the child out of the jurisdiction of England and Wales they would require the other's consent. If the consent was not given the onus would be on the person wishing to remove the child to obtain permission from the court to travel. If permission is not sought and the parent removed the child an offence of child abduction has been committed.
Four realistic ways exist to resolve parental responsibility disputes: direct discussions between the parents; mediation; lawyer negotiation; or an application to the court.
Suggested changes currently being considered by the Government would give automatic parental responsibility to unmarried fathers who are named on a child's birth certificate and who attend with the mother to register the child's birth. These potential changes would be a further step towards full parity and may remove a potential area of conflict. However, unmarried fathers should consider their position, even if they are currently in a happy relationship, because it is then that their partner may be more willing to sign up to a parental responsibility agreement.
Single dads in the Walford and Weatherfield area take note. It's your move!
The author is a family law partner at the national law firm Irwin Mitchell.
Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.