Most importantly, the theoretical and philosophical basis of parenting was altered significantly by the Act. Instead of one parent (usually but not necessarily the mother) retaining all parental rights and the absent parent only keeping limited rights both married parents have parental responsibility which is retained by both of them after divorce. Parental responsibility is a concept that is as nebulous as it is important. It is the bundle of rights and responsibilities of a responsible and caring parent. The responsibility is to act in the best interests of one’s child. The rights consist amongst other things of having a full relationship with the child, and of being consulted and having an equal voice in such matters as education, religion, medical treatment and the like.
The demarcation between the rights of an absent parent with parental responsibility and the de facto rights of the parent with care to decide on matters relating to the child’s day to day routine is a grey one and can often lead to disputes.
The position of fathers of children born outside marriage is more complicated. Parental responsibility is now granted to fathers whose names are on the birth certificate but this is only a recent development and only relates to children born since 1st December 2003.
In other cases fathers of children born outside marriage do not automatically acquire parental responsibility. All parents rights are deemed to vest in the mother. However, where a couple have had a secure cohabiting relationship the father will almost certainly acquire parental responsibility if he asks the Court to grant it to him. Where a man has fathered a child outside of a secure and stable relationship however he must satisfy the Court that he is sufficiently committed to his child to the granted parental responsibility.
Apart from those children of married couples and those born recently where the father is named on the birth certificate, fathers need to acquire parental responsibility. This can be acquired either by a parental responsibility agreement reached between the parents themselves and registered with the Family Division in London; or ordered by the Court. With an increasing number of cohabiting couples in stable relationships it is very often the case that fathers will look after children for years while being unaware that they do not have parental responsibility and that the mother theoretically holds all the parental rights. This is unsatisfactory.
In theory the absence of parental responsibility means that that parent (almost invariably the father) does not have the right to school reports, or to be consulted about a child’s education or religious upbringing.