Parental responsibility

Andrew Martin - July 2018

Just because someone is defined as a “parent” of a child under the s.576 of the Education Act 1996 does not mean that they have parental responsibility for that child.  Parental responsibility is defined by a different set of criteria and is what gives people powers to make important decisions in relation to their child’s upbringing.  This can include decisions about where a child goes to school and what medical treatment they can or cannot have.  Here we explore the definition of parental responsibility, the implications and the circumstances when those with parental responsibility may change.

Note: This is post is not intended as an authoritative interpretation of the law, but to act as guidance.  If there are areas of doubt in particular cases, specific legal advice should be sought.

Parents are integral to children’s education and there are a number of occasions when schools are required by law to have dealings with a child’s parents.  There are however differences between who the school may class as a parent and who has parental responsibility.

Who should schools see as the parent?

s.576 of the Education Act 1996 defines a “parent” as:

  • The natural (biological) parents of the child, whether they are married or not;
  • Any person who although not a natural parent has parental responsibility for the child;
  • Any person who although not a natural parent, has care of the child.

This is important as s.7 of the same Act requires the parents of every child of compulsory school age to ensure that their child receives suitable full-time education.  Those defined as parents under the Education Act 1996 also have a right to participate in decisions about a child’s education.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is defined under family law in s3 of the Children Act 1989 as:

  1. In this Act “parental responsibility” means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.
  2. It also includes the rights, powers and duties which a guardian of the child’s estate (appointed, before the commencement of section 5, to act generally) would have had in relation to the child and his property.

What does this mean?

Essentially, this means that people who have parental responsibility for a child are able to make important decisions for that child and receive information about them, unless there is a court order saying otherwise.  Such decisions include things like where the child lives, choice of schools, agreeing to medical treatment (although there are exceptions to this in emergencies) and consenting to the child getting married if aged between 16 and 18.

Ultimately the reason that parental responsibility is important is that only people with parental responsibility can make the legal decisions for the child, whilst others can express their views.  Therefore if a child is living with another person who does not have parental responsibility for them then there are limitations as to what that carer can and cannot do.

Who can have parental responsibility (PR)?

  1. The child’s biological mother (PR automatically granted at the time the child is born).
  2. If the father was married to the child’s mother when the child was born (or has since married her) the father automatically has PR.
  3. If the child’s parents are not married and the child was born after the 1st December 2003, the father automatically has PR if their name is registered on the birth certificate.
  4. A child’s mother can grant the father PR through a formal “parental responsibility agreement” which whilst not a court order is a legal document that must be witnessed in court.
  5. A guardian of the child – usually appointed by a court or through a will.

There are also a number of legal orders which can bestow parental responsibility on an individual.

When does parental responsibility cease?

Where PR is automatically granted (i.e. points 1-3 in the list above), parents continue to have PR if they separate or divorce.  The only way PR can be removed is if the child is through an adoption order.

In all circumstances, parental responsibility comes to an end when:

  • The child turns 18 years of age.
  • The child is aged 16 or 17 and marries.
  • A court order is made terminating parental responsibility.
  • A Child Arrangements Order expires or is discharged.
  • The child is adopted.

What is the implication for schools of someone having parental responsibility?

Generally, those with PR can:

  • add their views when a school is chosen for the child.
  • attend parent’s evening.
  • get information about how the child is doing in school, e.g. school reports.
  • be told of their right to appeal to a child’s exclusion.
  • to be involved in or start the process for looking at whether an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
  • withdraw the child from religious education, collective worship and / or sex education.
  • To stand for election as a parent governor.
  • To vote in elections for parent governors.

What happens if there is a dispute between parents with parental responsibility?

This needs to be resolved by the people who share the responsibility and not by the school.  It is however important that we remain mindful of the impact of any such disputes on the child.  Unfortunately there are numerous cases where parents separate and the breakdown of their relationship is such that any ongoing discussions are acrimonious.  As a school you should not get drawn into these discussions.

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