Mothers are often very anxious about what it means for a father to have parental responsibility. Just to give a few examples:
• Will the father interfere with her day-to-day life looking after the child by stopping me from dressing the child the way I want or feeding the child in a particular way?
• Will the father be able to stop me from doing something for the child that I want to do, such as bringing the child up as a Catholic or Muslim, or sending him to a private school or particular local school?
• Will the father be able to get access to school reports or the child’s medical records?
• Will the father be able to introduce the child to his new partner?
In considering the father’s application a mother should think through the following points:
• the norm is for a father to be given parental responsibility unless he has behaved extremely badly towards mother or the child, has no relationship with the child, is really only making the application as a way of maintaining contact with the mother, is mentally ill in such a way that he could not exercise parental responsibility;
• a father is rarely refused parental responsibility simply because he has paid no maintenance (unless it is part of a wider picture showing lack of commitment);
• a court will always look to see if it can make other orders which help overcome the mother’s anxieties, for example, by making orders under section 8 (eg residence, contact, specific issue or prohibited steps orders) or by attaching conditions to orders);
• for example, if a father accepts that the child should live with the mother because she is a good mother, it can be helpful if the court makes an order stating this, and recording that father consents. This can help the mother to realise that father is not ‘trying to take the child away from her’ or criticising her in some way.
• ‘Responsibility’ is not seen by the courts in exactly the same way as its everyday meaning – the fact that a father is rather immature or not terribly reliable, or has had an affair will not be seen by the court as irresponsible in the usual way people use the word. A parental responsibility order tends to be seen by the court as a way of recognising a father’s status in the child’s life rather than a statement that he is a ‘responsible’ father;
• one of the reasons that fathers are given parental responsibility, even if they have not always co-operated well with the mother is that at the end of the day the court knows that disputes about particular aspects of parental responsibility are usually decided in favour of the person with primary care;
• a father without parental responsibility has (at the moment) no automatic right to be involved in any court proceedings with regard to the child being taken into care or being adopted – one of the reasons why UK family courts think it important for a father to have parental responsibility.