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Absent father wins appeal on parental responsibility

A father has won his appeal against a ruling that he should not be given parental responsibility for a child due to the mother’s anxieties about contact.

W (Children) concerned a former couple who had split up during her pregnancy. Their child, referred to as R in case reports, was born in April 2006. The father applied for an parental responsibility order – a declaration that he was the legal father – as well as contact with the child in the Family Proceedings Court.

However, he was unsuccessful on both issues. The Cafcass officer assigned to the case reported that the mother had such serious anxieties about the possible effects of contact between R and the father that it should not be allowed – even though there were no “objective foundations” for her concerns.

The magistrates ruled that:

“…it has been established that this mother has such a real fear of father playing any role in her child’s life.  If father were to exercise the inherent powers of [parental responsibility] we are satisfied that this would significantly adversely affect R’s future stability and wellbeing.”

The father’s appeal against the ruling that he have no direct contact with R once again failed. The Court of Appeal said this was a decision for the magistrates at the Family Proceedings Court to make, based on the evidence available to them.

But on the issue of parental responsibility, Lord Justice Thorpe said the magistrates had not correctly applied the principles of a leading judgement on parental responsibility – Re C & V, from 1998. He quoted Lord Justice Ward’s statement  in that case:

“…and it should be understood by now that a parental responsibility order is one designed not to do more than confer on the natural father the status of fatherhood which a father would have when married to the mother.  There is also a sad failure fully to appreciate, when looking at the best interests of the child (which are paramount in this application, as elsewhere) that a child needs for its self-esteem to grow up, wherever it can, having a favourable positive image of an absent parent; and it is important that, wherever possible, the law should confer on a concerned father that stamp of approval because he has shown himself willing and anxious to pick up the responsibility of fatherhood and not to deny or avoid it.”

The two issues under appeal – parental responsibility and contact – were quite separate ones, said Lord Justice Thorpe, and the magistrates had been wrong to link them.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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