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The Ultimate Guide to Unmarried Fathers’ Rights in the UK

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I am a father who is not married to my child’s mother. What are my rights?

Whether parents are married to each other or not often makes no difference to the way they bring up their children. However, what are the rights of unmarried fathers? Unfortunately, they do not automatically have the rights in respect of their children that they would expect. This is usually not noticed until the parent’s relationship ends. Unmarried fathers then often get confused or frustrated about unmarried fathers’ rights in the UK – both to actually have access to their children and to have a say in important decisions about their upbringing. So, what rights do unmarried fathers have and what can be done to improve unmarried fathers’ rights?

Parental responsibility

One of most important terms is ‘Parental Responsibility’. This covers the rights an adult has when they bring up a child and the responsibilities that go with those rights.
Parental responsibility means you are responsible for making all the decisions that have to be made when bringing up a child. If two people have parental responsibility, they make these decisions jointly and either can withhold their consent if they don’t agree to something. The decisions to be made include those about:

  • Where the child lives.
  • The child’s general wellbeing and care.
  • Healthcare – making sure they are registered with doctors, dentists, etc. and giving permission for any treatment they need.
  • Education – which school they will go to, and giving permission for extra activities – e.g. sports, school outings, etc.
  • Religious and faith upbringing.

How long does parental responsibility last?

Parental responsibility normally ends on your child’s eighteenth birthday when they legally become an adult.
However, parental responsibility can be ended earlier. This might happen if the child is adopted and as a result, his or her parents will no longer have parental responsibility. There are more rare occasions when a court might also need to remove parental responsibility from the child’s parents, for example, if there are concerns about the child’s safety and wellbeing.

Who gets parental responsibility automatically?

Anyone can apply for parental responsibility if they take care of and make decisions on behalf of the child – for example, if a child’s parents die and they go and live with grandparents or other family members.
However, the law is very clear about who automatically gets parental responsibility without having to go to court to get it:

  • The child’s biological mother.
  • The child’s biological father, IF he was legally married to the child’s mother on the date the child was born.
  • The child’s biological father, IF he is named on the child’s birth certificate as the father.
  • Anyone who legally adopts the child.

There’s no dispute that I’m my child’s father. I’m automatically recognised?

That sounds as if it would make sense, but unfortunately is not always so. Child custody laws in the UK for unmarried fathers are not completely straightforward. If you are not named on the birth certificate as the father, and were not married to your child’s mother at the time of birth, you do not automatically get parental responsibility.

I don’t fit into the categories to automatically get parental responsibility.

What are the rights of unmarried fathers? Is there anything I can do to get parental responsibility and have a real say when it comes to my child?

Yes. If you are together with the child’s mother and you are the biological father, you would gain parental responsibility if you married.
The second, and often more practical option, is to make a formal, written agreement with your child’s mother agreeing to you having parental responsibility.
Failing this, you can apply to court for a parental responsibility order.
So, if you are no longer in a relationship with your child’s mother, the best, cheapest and most stress-free way of getting parental responsibility is to agree it directly with your ex-partner. You may wish to use family mediation to have this conversation.

Me and my ex don’t really speak any more.

We’ll just end up arguing and she’ll never agree.

Sadly, communications can breakdown or become very challenging, but mediation can very often be the best way forward to agree an arrangement that you and your ex can agree on and, most importantly, is in your child’s best interests.
The mediation process is much less stressful for everyone involved than a court battle. Mediation is not a battle with both sides feeling they have to defend their position. It is a discussion between the two of you with the mediator there to help keep your discussions focused on the issues you agreed discuss. Family mediation is usually the best way to take the heat out of the situation, if you and your ex do not get on any more. The mediator is not working for one or the other of you, but is there to help you come to a joint decision that is in the interest of your child. The mediator will help both of you explain any concerns you have calmly and help you to find a way forward that you are both happy with and that will most importantly work for your child.

What if she won’t cooperate, or mediation doesn’t come up with an OK solution?

That’s when you would need to ask the courts for a court order giving you parental responsibility. Unfortunately, this can be a lengthy process. Although it is not strictly speaking necessary to have a solicitor representing you in court, a solicitor will make sure that your application is correctly worded and put your case to the family courts as effectively as possibly. This can end up being quite expensive.
The judge or magistrates will decide the terms of any order and access arrangements after hearing what you and your ex have to say in court, and always considering what is in the best interests of your child. You will both have to comply with the court’s decision even if you don’t like it. That’s why it’s much better for everyone if you can reach an agreement that you can both live with through mediation.
The courts also insist that you must have tried mediation before they will allow you to bring a case to court. Court action should be your last resort.

Does parental responsibility give me automatic rights of access to my child?

Not by itself. Parental responsibility gives you the right to have a say in important aspects of your child’s life like education, healthcare and wellbeing. However, a written agreement with your ex giving you as the unmarried father parental responsibility will also cover what you agree about how often you will see your child, how often they will spend time living with you, how you share the time with them on school holidays, etc.


Unmarried fathers often only discover after their relationship with their ex has ended that they do not have the automatic rights in respect of their children that they assumed they would have. At that time, when communication has broken down, it gets more complicated to make an agreement with your ex for you to have a say and be included in your child’s upbringing.
When parents choose not to marry, if the father is not named on the birth certificate, he should consider agreeing formal parental responsibility with his partner for the peace of mind of having full parental rights and responsibilities.
Contact our friendly and professional team of family mediators at Direct Mediation Services to find out more about how we can help you get parental responsibility for your child.

Also, read about termination of parental rights UK in our blog.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Parental responsibility is defined by the Children Act 1989 as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities an authority, which by law, a parent of a child has to the child”

You will have parental responsibility if you are registered on your child’s birth certificate. If you are not registered, you will need to either get a parental responsibility agreement with the consent of the mother OR by applying to the Court for a parental responsibility order.

You will have the right to make important decisions about your child’s life, such as where they live or where they go to school. It also covers decisions around healthcare and religion. Having parental responsibility does not give you an automatic right to spend time with your child. However, as a general rule children have a right to spend time with both their parents so long as it is in their best interests.

The first step is to attempt mediation. Hopefully you and the child’s mother will be able to come to an agreement on you spending time with your child and parental responsibility, if that is an issue too. Failing mediation, you can explore other alternative dispute resolution methods such as arbitration or solicitor led negotiation. As a last resort, you can make an application to the court for a child arrangements order and/or a parental responsibility order.