The House of Commons will debate an e-petition asking the government to create an automatic suspension in law of a parent’s rights in relation to their children, if they are found guilty of murdering the other parent. Parliament is required by law to discuss petitions which gather 100,000 signatures or more.

Parental Responsibility is defined in section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 as being, “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”.

The term places an emphasis on parents’ duties towards their child rather than any rights they have over their child.

The petition, which was created by Edwin John Robert Duggan and which has collected more than 129,000 signatures, will be debated in Parliament on 12th September from 4.30pm, and will be broadcast on Parliament’s YouTube channel. The petition remains open until 19th October, 2022, meaning it can still be signed until then.

Duggan is a law graduate and a close friend of Jade Ward,  a 27-year-old mother-of-four, who was murdered by her estranged husband at her home on August 25, 2021. Russell Marsh was found guilty of murdering Jade this year and received a life sentence. However, he is still legally allowed to receive updates on the children, ask for school reports, and have a say in his children’s upbringing while serving his sentence in prison. Duggan has called the legal proposal “Jade’s Law”.

The government failed to respond to the petition within the accepted timeframe and to address the request directly. These failures were criticised by Petitions Committee Chair Catherine McKinnell MP, in a letter to the Ministry of Justice.

In her letter to Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab, she said:

“As I’m sure you are aware, the Government has agreed to provide clear and direct responses to every e-petition that receives over 10,000 signatures. While your department’s response to this petition sets out existing provisions for the exercise of parental responsibility to be limited by the courts, it does not directly respond to the request for the Government to automatically suspend parental responsibility of parents found guilty of murdering the other parent, for the duration of their sentence. The Government’s response to this petition is, therefore, not consistent with the standards that have been agreed between the Committee and the Leader of the House of Commons. It is particularly disappointing that the Government’s response does not directly respond to the request of the petition, as it was almost four weeks late.”

The petition asks the government to:

“Provide a mechanism within existing legislation whereupon a person with parental responsibility (PR) is found guilty of murdering the other parent with PR, has PR automatically suspended throughout the duration of the term of imprisonment of the aforesaid person convicted.

It is acknowledged that there is scope to restrict parental responsibility from a parent through existing legislation, however, this can often be time consuming and for some expensive. The automatic removal of PR will save those, who now care for the surviving children, the added burden of attending numerous court cases to restrict the person holding PR, who would often use these cases as an opportunity to aggravate the process and in so doing cause further distress to the family.”

The government’s response, which was written by the Ministry of Justice and published on June 16, said:

“The court can limit the exercise of parental responsibility, if in the best interests of the child. In the most serious cases this can effectively amount to removing all parental powers and authority.

The Government recognises that in situations where one parent is convicted of the murder of the other parent, the process for restricting parental responsibility from a parent who is imprisoned can be time consuming, and that making or responding to court applications, and attending multiple court hearings on related issues of parental responsibility can often be onerous for those involved.

Current provisions
Under the Children Act 1989, the exercise of parental responsibility held by one or more individuals can already be limited by the court, where to do so is deemed to be in the best interests of the child. The Act also enables the court to prevent individuals bringing multiple unwarranted applications before the court, which can be burdensome and distressing to family members.

Where a child does not have a parent to care for them on a day-to-day basis, members of the family can apply for court orders in private law proceedings, or a local authority might initiate public law care proceedings, with a view to providing for the child’s upbringing. In making such orders the welfare of the child is always the paramount consideration of the court.

In cases where one parent has been convicted of murdering the other, the responsible local authority will have a duty to protect that child and ensure they are safeguarded from harm. This may include initiating care proceedings to provide the child with a permanent or interim care arrangement. A care arrangement can include family members, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, being granted parental responsibility for the child. Alternatively, a local authority will acquire parental responsibility of the child where the court deems this to be in the best interests of the child.

The court can already exercise powers to effectively remove all parental powers and authority in appropriate cases. The extent to which, and the time period during which such parental rights and powers are limited, are matters for the judge to decide based on the facts of the case.

The court can also exercise powers to prevent an individual attempting to repeatedly bring issues back before the court. Section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989 allows family courts to bar individuals from making further specified applications under the Children Act 1989 without permission of the court. These orders are known as section 91(14) orders. The court can make such an order of its own motion or following an application by one of the parties involved in the private law case.

Once a section 91(14) order is in place, if an applicant subsequently seeks permission to make a relevant Children Act application, the court will generally consider whether the circumstances that gave rise to the barring order have changed. This offers protection to those persons caring for the child, removing the burden and associated distress to family members of having to go back to court multiple times.”

McKinnell will open the debate, and a Minister from the Ministry of Justice will respond on behalf of the Government.

For those interested in the topic, you can watch the debate live or read a transcript of the debate: