Q. I have just separated from my girlfriend after being together for over five years – we have two children aged three and a half years and eighteen months. Since we separated two months ago, the mother has only let me see the children at the house infrequently and for very short periods. She has also told me that because she is the mother and the children live with her, I have no rights and she will decide what happens with the children. Is it correct that I have no rights as their father?
No, that’s not correct. Whilst everyone can be said to have ‘rights’, in legal terms what is more important is whether you have Parental Responsibility (PR) for your children. The definition of PR is conferring upon a person all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent ordinarily has towards a child. Essentially, PR means having the ability to make decisions for a child, deciding, for example, day-to-day things like where you take them, who you introduce them to and who you leave them with (e.g. grandparents who may be babysitting).
For major decisions about a child’s welfare, such as schooling and medical treatment, a person with PR will have the right to be consulted. In your case, if you have PR for the children you will be entitled to obtain information about them from schools, GPs, dentists etc. without having to go via the mother. I often receive requests to contact a child’s school asking them to note on their records that a person has PR for a particular child and wants to receive specific information about them and have their own copy of reports or photographs.
Q. In this case I wasn’t married to the mother. Does this mean I don’t have PR?
Not necessarily. If you had been married to the mother you would automatically have PR but since 2003, unmarried fathers also have PR if they have been named as the father on a child’s birth certificate.
Q. If I don’t have PR, is there any way I can now get it?
Yes, there are various ways you can obtain PR if you are not on the birth certificate. You could enter into a formal ‘Parental Responsibility Agreement’ with the mother if she is willing to do so. If she is not, you could make an application to the court for an Order giving you PR.
However, before any application to the court is made, you are likely to have to try mediation. I always suggest mediation in cases where it is appropriate because it is an excellent way for parents to meet on neutral ground to discuss what the arrangements should be for their children.
It’s important to note that a father does not have to have PR to pursue regular time with their child.
Q. If I do have PR does that mean that the mother will have to let me have the children when I say?
It’s not that simple and it is rarely right for either party simply to dictate to the other what will happen. How things are sorted out will still rely on you and the mother negotiating and agreeing what the arrangements will be. Any arrangements will have to be workable for both parents but most importantly be best for the children. I always encourage clients to work with the other parent (where it is safe for them to do so) to reach such an agreement and only make an application to the court when absolutely necessary or to formalise an agreement. The actual arrangements made will be different for each family and, of course, will probably need to be altered over time to adapt to life’s changes and circumstances.
The ideal outcome is that there is regular, good quality time for the children to spend with their mother and with you, as well as a sharing of school holidays and important occasions such as birthdays and Christmas wherever possible.