What rights do fathers have in the UK: Comprehensive guide to fathers’ rights
As a family solicitor who specialises in fathers’ rights, I have had years of experience in dealing with fathers, who are frustrated and often disheartened by a system that can at times seem unfair and biased against them. While in the UK fathers nominally have the same rights as mothers, it is still very common that a father will face an uphill battle just for wanting to be part of his child’s life, after separation from the mother of the child.
We get dozens of calls every day from fathers desperate to get help with child related applications. As I strongly believe that knowledge is power and quite often fathers find themselves in very difficult position due to lack of knowledge and an understanding of their rights, I decided to sit down and put together general guidance for fathers facing difficulties in relation to their parental rights and obligations.
What are my rights as a father?
Let’s start with the obvious – what are the fathers’ rights in the UK? The easy answer is that fathers have the same rights as mothers do in the UK. However, the reality is somewhat more complex than this simple answer may suggest.
Should you approach a solicitor with this question, a good solicitor will not answer until they have had asked you the following:
- Were you married to the mother of the child at the time of the child’s birth?
- Are you on the child’s birth certificate?
The above questions should be the starting point as they should first establish if you have parental responsibility before providing advice. There might also be other factors to consider but those are the main ones.
If you were married to the child’s mother at the time of the child’s birth, then you will automatically be recognised as the child’s father and will have parental responsibility. Likewise, if you are on the child’s birth certificate, even if you were not married to the child’s mother, you will have parental responsibility.
If neither of the above scenarios apply to you, you might need to apply for a court order to recognise your parental right to the child before you can do anything further. It is also possible to obtain parental responsibility via an arrangement with the mother, without the need to go to court, if you have an amicable relationship.
Once you have parental rights, you will have access to totality of rights and responsibilities in respect of your child. Legally, anyone with parental responsibility to the child has equal rights and obligations to the child. This means that a father who has parental responsibility has the same rights and responsibilities to the child as the mother does.
Let’s now have a look at what these rights mean in practice and how a father can exercise them, in particular if he is separated from the mother.
Fathers’ right to have contact and visit his child.
As a father with parental responsibility, you will have a right to have contact and visit your child in the same manner and to the same degree as the mother. A lot of fathers are fearful that if they separate from the mother of their child, they will also lose the right to see their child(ren) and have a meaningful relationship with them. This is incorrect andsuch assumptions cause a lot of unnecessary heartache for everyone involved.
In all my years of experience fighting for fathers’ rights, I have discovered that after clarifying whether the client has parental rights, the next step is to inform the other party on the meaning of being a parent and having parental rights. Unsurprisingly, a lot of women, like men, are under the wrong impression that mothers somehow have more rights in respect of children. Unfortunately, there are quite a few women who also try to use this as a leverage in a messy breakup. Therefore, setting out very clearly each parties rights and responsibilities, together with an outline of the proposal in respect of the proposed child arrangements is very important.
There can be limitations on your right to contact with your child and in most cases, you might not be able to spend the same amount of time with your child as you used to before separating. This is because the child will also need to spend time with the other parent, whereas previously there was no need to split such time. However, it is important to remember that quality of time spent is more important than the quantity, so try to plan your contact with that in mind.
What does child contact mean?
A lot of fathers are also confused about what contact with their child entails. In legal terms, child contact means setting out rules in respect of how the child’s time will be spent between the parents.
It is important to understand that contact can be direct, as well as indirect. Direct contact is when you meet with your child in person, whether by taking the child out, or having them over at your residence, or visiting the child in their residence if different from your own etc.
Indirect contact is any other form of contact, such as calls, videocalls, written contact etc. A lot of people concentrate only on direct contact, but my years of experience have taught me that addressing issues of indirect contact in a potential child arrangement can be equally as important. This is because in modern times indirect contact is much more predominant and allows for a significant level of communication between parties. It can also assist in always keeping in touch with your child, allowing you meaningful participation in all the important decisions in respect of your child.
Fathers’ rights to overnight stay
Another question we often hear is whether a father has the right to have his child overnight. As mentioned above, the fathers have the same rights as mothers. Therefore, a father can have overnight stay with their child.
How to achieve overnight contact with your child will depend on your personal circumstances. Such contact can be agreed with the other parent, or in absence of such agreement, may be ordered by courts as part of a child arrangement order.
However, if you are a father who wishes to have their child spend a night at their residence, you need to be conscious of certain aspects that might limit this right. In child matters, the child’s best interest and welfare is paramount. Therefore, before overnight contact is ordered, the courts will always look to ensure that the child’s best interest is catered to. We always recommend our clients assess their own circumstances, before lodging applications to the courts. This will help you understand better whether you are able to offer a safe environment for your child, meet their care needs and make changes where needed.
Can a parent’s contact with their child be limited?
Irrespective of your rights as a father, a parent, you need to remember that when it comes to children matters, the child’s welfare is paramount. This means that the courts will always consider what is best for the child, before they look at any other factors. In certain situations, if deemed necessary by the Court, you might not be allowed to have contact with your child, or it might be the case that such contact will be supervised, or only indirect contact may be allowed etc.
This is yet another concept that is mishandled on occasion. We have seen many cases where mothers tend to use allegations against fathers as a weapon. This is unfortunate, as the system is put in place to protect those that really need protection. It is not meant to be used as a way of getting back against an ex-partner.
If allegations have been made against you, it is prudent to immediately seek legal advice. Some men tend to either ignore such allegations, or might try to talk it out in hopes of finding a resolution. Others may have extreme reactions behave in a way that is not at all in their best interest. Neither is a good strategy.
Whether it is allegations of domestic violence against your ex-partner you are facing, or allegations in respect of your behaviour towards the children, having solid legal advice is the first order of the business. It is worth noting here that when it comes to child contact, only allegations that are seen as directly harmful to the children will have any impact. Those are assessed on a case-by-case basis, hence why you should not delay speaking to a solicitor, if such allegations have been made.
It is also important to keep in mind that if the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) is involved, going defensive and automatically assuming they will favour the mother is not going to be helpful. While errors happen, in most cases these services genuinely seek to protect children and ensure their best interest. Working with them will give you a better chance of putting your case forward. As a family solicitor, I always direct my clients on these matters. We pay particular attention to the CAFCASS reports and recommendations.
Can a father take the child from the mother in the UK?
There can be a lot of situations in which, as a father, you might consider having the child’s residence moved to your own. It might be because you feel like the child is not in a safe environment with the mother, or that it is in their best interest to be with you. You may feel that you are unable to have meaningful contact with the child do to current arrangements, or perhaps the other parent is obstructing contact, alienating the child and so on.
We hear from fathers who would like to have the residency of the child more often than you might expect. Unfortunately, a lot of fathers still operate under the false expectations that the child’s residence will automatically be that of the mother. There is no rule that says the child must live with the mother. Below, we will look at what factors the courts will consider when determining the residence of the child. However, I can say with full confidence, that there is no reason a father cannot be the resident parent. Throughout my many years as a family solicitor, I have helped numerous fathers in this respect.
What factors will the courts consider in custody or residence matters?
It is important to understand how courts think when it comes to children matters. This will not only give you a better chance of having a successful outcome but will also assist you in understanding the process and perhaps even re-assessing your goals.
The courts primary focus when deciding custody or residency is the welfare of the child. The courts are required to consider the following factors:
- Child’s Welfare- This involves looking at the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs, as well as considering any particular characteristics or vulnerabilities that child may have.
- Parental Capability: The court will assess each parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs and to provide a safe and stable environment. This includes looking at the parents mental and physical health, their skills in parenting and any history of abuse or neglect.
- Child Wishes and feelings: Depending on the child age the courts will be asked to take the child’s wishes and feelings into account. The courts will give weight to this, but this is dependable on the child’s age, level of maturity and understanding of the situation.
- Parental Involvement: The court will consider the level of commitment and involvement of each parent in the child’s life. This means looking at the quality of the relationship between the child and parent.
- Co-parenting: The ability of both parents being able to work together and communicate well in order to make decision about the child will be considered.
- Sibling and family: The courts will consider the importance of keeping siblings together and maintaining family relationships with extended family members where it is appropriate.
- Stability and Continuity: The courts need to consider whether any change in the child’s living arrangements will cause a negative impact and providing a stability and continuity in their life where possible.
- Harm or Risk of Harm: The court will need to consider any evidence of harm or risk of harm to the child, such as being subject to witnessing domestic abuse.
- Capacity to meet Child’s needs: The court will assess each parent’s ability to meet the child’s physical, emotional and educational needs, this would mean the courts looking at work schedule, housing arrangements, support networks.
- Child’s cultural and religious background: The courts will look at the importance of maintaining connection to their heritage.
The courts will make a decision based on the specific circumstances of each case, so how your case is presented has crucial importance. The welfare of the child(ren) will be at the forefront of any decision on residency. The courts will at times seek guidance from social workers and professionals that are involved with the child before making any decision.
How is child maintenance calculated and what are my financial responsibilities to a child?
Child maintenance is not specifically an obligation for the father. As parents, both the father and mother have an obligation to ensure the child’s maintenance needs are met. Child maintenance is the sum of the money paid by one parent to the other to contribute to their child’s maintenance. Therefore, in calculating the child maintenance, not only will your income levels be taken into account but also the specific needs of the child, together with how contact is shared. Normally, if the child resides with one parent, the other parent will pay child maintenance to contribute to the child’s maintenance. There can be cases where neither parent pays child maintenance, for instance where both parents have the child for an equal amount of time. Each parent will be responsible with the child’s expenses while the child lives with them, thus nullifying the need for the other parent to contribute.
Child maintenance is normally either agreed between parents or is worked out by the government. To see how government calculates the amounts, you can check this link -https://www.gov.uk/calculate-child-maintenance
Another thing to keep in mind is that child maintenance is not linked to child contact. For instance, if you chose not to have contact with your child, you will still be required to pay child maintenance. This is because child maintenance is a parental obligation to support your child, irrespective of the choice of having a relationship with your child or not.
What steps can I take if the mother is denying me access to the child?
If you believe that the mother of your child is denying you access to your child, the first step would be to try and have a conversation. Seeking advice from specialist fathers’ rights solicitor will be very helpful, as we have vast experience in dealing with all sorts of scenarios where access to child is denied and often give very practical advice that leads to quick solutions. When speaking to a solicitor, however, make sure that they are working with resolution in mind. The last thing you want is a solicitor that stocks up fires instead of putting them out. Family matters are highly emotional as it is and people tend to become defensive and adversarial very quickly. You want a lawyer supporting you, who can keep a clear head and guide you in the right way. Otherwise, you not only risk wasting tens of thousands in legal fees, but also hurting your child in the process.
It is also advisable to seek mediation at this point, as mediation can be a useful tool in achieving a resolution. In any event, in most cases where there is no urgency, the rules require you to have tried mediation before you can take matters further.
Unfortunately, even with best efforts, quite often there will be a need to secure a court order to ensure you can have access to your child. The options will vary depending on your circumstances. For instance, if you already have a child contact order, this can be enforced. If there is no court order, then an application should be made to obtain such order. If the order cannot be enforced, then consideration should be given to varying orders in such a way that it can be enforceable. Reasons for not being able to enforce a child order may include changes to circumstances which make enforcement impractical.
There can also be cases where the mother is actively obstructing contact or alienating the child. In such cases, prohibited steps orders might be a useful tool. This is an order whereby the mother is prohibited from taking certain action. Likewise, it might be the case that you will need to consider having the child reside with you, so that they are no longer negatively influenced by the mother.
Can I modify a child arrangement order if circumstances change?
Often enough, we have fathers come to us where the existing child arrangement orders no longer work. It might be because their circumstances have changed, the mother’s circumstances or even that of the child. It is not unusual that a child arrangement order, no matter how well drafted, might no longer be suitable where circumstances change. Changes that we see most often are related to either of the parents entering a new relationship and changing their residence This can lead to difficulties in maintaining the existing child arrangement orders, for instance, if the new residence is in a different area of the UK or even abroad. There might be many other reasons, from the child needing special type of care or education, to being worried about the other parent’s ability to care for the child and safeguard them and so on.
The good news is that child arrangements can be changed, if the change in circumstances means there is no way of maintaining the existing arrangement, or that it will no longer be in the child’s best interest. One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what your reasons, a child arrangement order cannot be rescinded unilaterally. This means you cannot simply decide that the order does not work anymore so you do not have to abide by it. This is true irrespective if you are the main carer of the child or you simply have contact with the child. Any change that you wish to implement, will need to either be agreed by the other party and reflected in a consent order, or done through the courts. The process in respect of varying an existing child arrangement order is quite similar to getting the order in the first place and in most cases will involve mediation. The only time mediation can be dispensed with, is when the matter is urgent.
How can I be involved in major decisions about my child?
As a father with parental responsibility, all the major decisions about your child should be made with your participation. This is irrespective of who the child resides with. Both parents a have equal rights and responsibilities in making decisions about the child’s upbringing, education, medical care and so on.
This means, for instance, that your child’s other parent cannot simply change your child’s school, or make other decision about their education, religious upbringing and so on, simply because it’s more convenient for them. All such decisions must be decided upon by both parents. You must, however, keep in mind that likewise, you cannot refuse certain changes, just because it’s inconvenient for you. All decisions in respect of the child should have the child’s best interest at the forefront. Should the parents fail to reach an agreement, the courts will look at the matter from this perspective alone and the parent who has failed to act reasonably may be penalised. It is, therefore, important to have this in mind when discussing major decisions about your child with your ex-partner.
In cases where your ex-partner is trying to frustrate your participation in such decisions, you will have an option to ask for the courts to issue orders that either prohibit the other parent from taking certain action, or force them to. For instance, this can be an order prohibiting the mother to move the child’s school or residence and so on.
What legal processes should I be aware of in cases involving children?
Understanding the legal process in :
- Child arrangements Order: This is the most common type of court order sought in child related cases. It states with whom the child will live with (residence) and when the child will spend time with each parent (contact). These orders can also include specific issues such as Schooling or medical decisions.
- Mediation: Prior to starting any court proceedings, it is advisable for parents or parties to attend mediation. Mediation is a process where an independent third part (the mediator) helps facilitate discussions between the parties to reach an agreement on child-related issues. Mediation is not considered mandatory but is encouraged by the courts and at times the Courts will not consider furthering your application until you have attempted mediation. There are of course cases where mediation is not suitable and this is recognised by the courts.
- Application to the court: If mediation is unsuccessful or not suitable then you can apply to the Court for a child arrangement order or other relevant orders. The court application involves a specific form with a fee that is payable to the courts.
- Cafcass (Children and Family Advisory and Support Service): Cases involving children, the courts normally appoint a Cafcass officer to assist the courts in representing the child’s interests which is provided through a report to the court. The report is required to offer recommendations on what arrangements would be in the best interests of the child. The courts will consider the report when making any final decision alongside other evidence that may be produced by the parties.
- Section 7 Report: In some cases the court may ask Cafcass or Social services to provide a detailed report called a section 7 report. This is a detailed analysis of the child’s welfare and recommendations to the court.
- Court Hearing: After you apply to the court there will be one or more hearings to discuss what the issues you and what is needed by way of evidence for the courts to assist the parties in reaching a resolution. The judge will consider evidence, submissions and any reports prior to making a decision.
- Parental Responsibility: Parental responsibility is the legal right and duty to make decision about a child’s upbringing. In most cases the mother automatically has parental responsibility. For fathers, parental responsibility is acquired automatically if they are married to the mother at the time of the birth of the child, they are named on the birth certificate or through a parental responsibility order.
- Prohibited Steps Order: If there are concerns that the other parent may take some form of action that is deemed as harmful to the child, you can apply for a Prohibited steps order. This order will stop that specific action from happening without the court’s permission.
- Specific Issue order: If there is a disagreement between parents on a certain issue, such as name change or changing schools, you can apply for a Specific Issue Order to resolve the issue.
- Enforcement and Variation: Once a court order is in place, it is legally binding. If the other party failed to comply with the order you can apply to the courts to have the order enforced. If circumstances change, you can also apply to have the order varied.
I realise that the process can be daunting; it is stressful, emotionally charged and sometimes may seem hopeless. It is therefore of paramount importance that you have adequate support through the process. While friends and family are a crucial support network at times like this, having an approachable solicitor is equally, if not more, important. Therefore, before starting on this journey, make sure you have found the right solicitor. It is not only about their credentials or the success rate or the fees. Of course, all those items are quite important, however if you do not feel comfortable with your solicitor, none of that will matter much. Hence why, my final piece of guidance in matters of children, is – find the solicitor who actually listens to you and understands you.