Welcome to another week.

Following the announcement of an e-petition which asked the government to change the law around parental responsibility (PR), the House of Commons library has published a brief ahead of a debate in Parliament on 12th September about the petition.

The petition asked 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.

The House of Commons library has offered some helpful information explaining PR, how to acquire it, how it is lost and how it is restricted under certain circumstances.

The brief is added in full below:

“The Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as “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” (section 3(1)).

Acquiring parental responsibility
Parental responsibility for a child may be acquired in several ways and by a number of different people (including a local authority where a care order has been made).

A child’s biological mother automatically acquires parental responsibility for a child. A child’s biological father also automatically acquires parental responsibility if they were married to, or civil partners of, the mother at the time of the child’s birth. Parents do not lose parental responsibility if they separate or divorce.

A father who is not married to, or a civil partner of, the mother at the time of the birth may acquire parental responsibility in several ways, including:

Subsequently marrying or entering into a civil partnership with the mother.

Being registered as the child’s father on the birth certificate (from 1 December 2003).

Entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother.

Successfully applying to the court for an order that they shall have parental responsibility (a parental responsibility order).

In some cases, by being named in a child arrangements order. If the order is for residence, the court must make a separate parental responsibility order at the same time as the child arrangements order. If the order is for contact, the court may do so but does not have to.

Where a child has two female parents (under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008) the parent who did not give birth to the child is treated broadly in the same way as a father in respect of parental responsibility.

Further information, including on the acquisition by a step parent or another person, is provided in section 3 of the Library briefing: Children: parental responsibility – how it’s gained and lost, and restrictions (England and Wales).

Losing parental responsibility
The only circumstances where a child’s mother can lose parental responsibility is as a result of the making of an adoption order or a parental order (in respect of a surrogate child that the mother gave birth to). This is the same where a father or other parent was married to, or civil partners, of the mother.

Where a child’s father or other parent acquired parental responsibility through one of the other means outlined above (eg, by being named on the child’s birth certificate), they can lose parental responsibility through an order of the court to that effect.

Any person with parental responsibility, or the child themselves if they have sufficient understanding, may apply to the court to terminate a parent’s parental responsibility. The principles to be applied when a court is considering whether to revoke parental responsibility were summarised in a 2017 family court judgement. They include:

It should be rare for a father not to be afforded the status of having parental responsibility for their child.

When considering whether to revoke a person’s parental responsibility, the court’s paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child.

There is no requirement for the court to consider the factors set out in section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989 (the ”welfare checklist”) but the court is not prevented from doing so.

The principle that the court should not make an order unless it considers that doing so would be better for the child than making no order at all applies.

There are very limited cases where a court has allowed an application to terminate a father’s parental responsibility. They include:

In a 1995 case, the court terminated the parental responsibility (acquired by a parental responsibility agreement) of a father who had been sent to prison for causing serious injuries to his child.

In a 2013 case, the court removed the parental responsibility of a father who had been imprisoned for sexual abuse of his child’s half-sisters.

In a further case in 2013, the court terminated the parental responsibility of a father who was serving a prison sentence for a violent attack on the child’s mother.

In a 2021 case, the court terminated the parental responsibility of a father who had a significant offending history, including sexual offences against children.

Limiting parental responsibility
The court can also restrict a person’s parental responsibility by making an order that in some way restricts their rights in relation to the child (eg, a prohibited steps order under section 8 of the Children Act 1989).

This applies also to people who cannot have their parental responsibility removed by the court (eg, mothers). In the 2017 case cited above, for example, the court made an order prohibiting a married father from taking any steps in the exercise of any aspect of his parental responsibility in relation to his children.

In addition, when a child is in the care of a local authority (as a result of a care order) the local authority has the power to determine the extent to which the child’s parents may meet their parental responsibility.

Hersham and McFarlane, Children Law and Practice, Division A, Section 3.

Commons Library briefing CBP-8760, Children: parental responsibility – how it’s gained and lost, and restrictions (England and Wales).

Children Act 1989, particularly sections 1-4A.”

The petition was created by Edwin John Robert Duggan and has collected more than 129,000 signatures. It 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.

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

Watch the debate (from 4.30pm, Monday 12 September)
Read the debate transcript (available a few hours after the debate has ended)