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Step parents and the law: Marilyn Stowe talks

Earlier today I appeared on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour to discuss the legal status of step parents.

Life as a step parent can be very challenging: get it even slightly wrong and you could face resentment from all quarters: from your spouse, from the children’s other biological parent and of course, from the children themselves. Sensitivity and a delicate approach are all-important if you want to enjoy success as a step parent.

Sometimes, of course, it works. Genuine bonds can form between a step parent and the children they have helped to raise – especially if they have a poor relationship with their other biological parent.

But the second marriages and later-in-life relationships in which step parents typically make an appearance are just as prone to failure as any other – perhaps more so. So what happens then? Must your relationship with children you may have spent years with end the moment your relationship with your ex-partner does?

The Women’s Hour segment opened with the very sad case of a women who found herself in just that situation: her relationship ended and she had been unable to see his children since then, despite them ‘adoring’ her. It was “like a bereavement” she said.

Is a genetic connection the be-all and end-all of the parent-child-relationship? Of course not: as a society we endorse and encourage the adoption of children. So where does that recognition leave step-parents?

What, if anything, Woman’s Hour asked me, could their distressed correspondent do?

In many ways the relevant law is as complex as the role of step parent itself. But in this video I aim to give you an introductions to the key points – from your de rigueur introduction to mediation via a MIAM to the importance of parental responsibility and how to obtain it.

It would be fair to say that step-parents play a similar role to grandparents in the eyes of the law: their rights are usually recognised but they are kept a little at arm’s length unless the strength of their relationship with the children can be clearly established.

If you are step-parent now wresting with your rights under the law following divorce or separation, here a few resources which may be helpful:


  1. A website dedicated to the ins and outs of step parenting:


  1. The actual text of the Children Act 1989:

See in particular Section 1, Section 8 (as amended by Section 12 of Children and Families Act 2014) regarding orders that can be made and Section 10(9) in relation to permission to make an application for a child arrangements order.


  1. Parental rights and responsibilities:


  1. A parental responsibility agreement for step parents in a marriage or civil partnership:


  1. Cafcass on parental responsibility, obtaining a child arrangements order and the ‘welfare checklist’:


  1. How to make an application to court for a child arrangements order:


  1. Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings (MIAMs):


  1. MIAM-qualified mediators:


  1. Form C100:


  1. Re A (A child): a recent case in which permission was needed before an application could be made for a child arrangements order.

See paragraph 53 of the Judgement for the relevant principles.


  1. Orders a court may make include attendance at a separated Parents Information Programme and, with the consent of both parties, a Family Assistance Order:


Video transcript

Hello, in today’s video blog post I am going to talk about step-parenting and the law.

I have just come back from appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour where they had a really sad story of a lady who was never married to her partner and helped to raise his children and then when their relationship broke down she has not been able to see the children. The Woman’s Hour presenter asked me what the law was in relation to that. So, let’s have a look at that because one in three families are ‘blended’ families or step-parent families, so it touches a huge number of people.

First of all, step-parenting is fraught with practical difficulties, there is no question about that. I recommended a website that I had come across called Happy Steps where they do give lots of practical tips and also the physiology for step-parenting which you might want to have a look at.

If you do decide to get married and there are children involved then of course it is going to be very difficult but remember that marriage gives you no automatic parental responsibility over children that aren’t yours. So, you have to acquire parental responsibility if you want it, either by an agreement when your partner and the other parent of the child has to agree, you download the form from the internet and then lodge it at the Family Court in High Holborn in London. Or, if you need to, you can go to court and apply for the parental responsibility. If you’re not married, you can’t do that, the only way you can acquire parental responsibility is indirectly if you have an order that a child is to live with you and you’re named in that order. Then you will have it but only for the length of the order of the court. So it is tricky. Parental responsibility means that you then assume all the rights of a parent to make big decisions in children’s life, including education, religion, where they live, lifestyle, and also in emergency situations, such as if a child suddenly becomes ill and a decision has to made about medical treatment.

But then what happens if the relationship breaks down?

I am afraid that children and step-parents don’t always see eye-to-eye and even with the best will in the world, the step-parent may not be seen to be as neutral or as on side if that happens as a ‘real’ birth parent.

And so relationships break down, what happens then?

You can apply to the court to see the children, if it is in their best interests, by issuing what is called a C100 and paying £215 court fee. Before you go to court it is mandatory you attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting and try and whether or not the dispute can be resolved by mediation. If you do go to court it is highly likely that it will be before a Magistrates Court and there will be a two stage hearing. The first hearing will be to decide interim matters after you have been contacted by a Cafcas officer, that is the Children Advisory Courts Service, that is a social worker who will first of all want to find out if there are any safeguarding issues, whether there is any domestic violence or any concerns about violence or abuse and then they might be brought in to try and help sort out the dispute of the first hearing or file a report for the second hearing, which is usually the final hearing.

At the first hearing, which is a despite resolution appointment, the Magistrate and you and your former partner will be trying to sort it all out and the Magistrates can make an interim order for the time being. So, don’t forget to ask for that if you go there. Then finally, the order will be made in court at the next hearing and the court will decide.

On what basis will the court decide?

Well, that is all set out in the Children Act, so have a good look at section 1 (3) of the Children Act in particular; that is the Children Act 1989, and there you will get the welfare checklist. When the court makes its decision, it has to do so on the basis that the welfare of the child is paramount and the checklist set out all of the things that the court will take into account.

The last thing I want to mention is that if you haven’t lived with the children for three years, and this applies to grandparents as well, you first of all have to get permission from the court before your application to see the children can proceed. It is worth checking, again, the Children Act for the criteria that are involved and the latest court decision. It is tricky but accompanying this blog post are some written references so click on the links and that will take you straight through to what I hope will be able to give you more information. It is a complex subject, I can’t obviously cover it all but I hope I have got the basics to enable you make a decision about it. If you really want to see the children and you think it is in their best interest, then there is no harm in trying, thank you.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. JamesB says:

    I did listen and thought you were good and offered good advice and were knowledgeable on the subject and know more than me, which is probably good as I haven’t been to court for oer 5 years now I am glad to say.

    Your words.. What the court would do is … go before Magistrates court .. why contact should continue, will listen.
    Why not do yourself for £215. Good shout.

    Interested on the 3 year point and PR point. Not sure I followed. If you are living with children for 3 years court will hear an application for contact whether they are yours are not, if less than 3 years then not. Is that what you said? If PR registered then they will receive application.

    I ask as I wonder why a man should put his name on the birth certificate? What is in it for him? Seems to me a label of little purpose, as the premise behind it that a biological parent has no rights of course is wrong.
    One of the most tricky things you can do, agree. Happy Steps. May be off to read it, step children broke a relationship of mine I would have liked to see succeed and otherwise would have.
    Thing seems to be step children and step parent not understanding or knowing their place or agreeing to it. None of them wanting to be regarded as a reserve parent or child and wanting to feel valued.
    I said to my children when they asked me what if they don’t get on with the new partner to give him a chance and they seem to have done. He will never be their Dad but they are better getting on with him then not.
    It would have been better if me and ex girlfriend with children had been able to agree some rules to enable the relationship. I suppose if you can’t communicate then that makes relationship difficult and the better you communicate, whether or not you are together the better.

    The way it should be.
    All children have tests and confirm both biological parents, who are then put on the birth certificate and have PR automatically, name to be agreed between them or what the woman wants if they can’t agree, I have no preference on the surname being male, with Italians and Dr Who that surname following woman is fine.
    PR can be applied for as can adoption. PR can only be given to non biological parent if non resident parent agrees. Child support can be disposed of by both biological parents agreeing. Pre nups to be legal.

    Final 2 points. 1. Children, step children, do not care if their mother or father has a relationship or not indeed probably more often than not would prefer that they are not as can and do see a step as a rival for parents time. 2. Children will view step parent and biological parents as different. These 2 points forged in my mind following a lot of experience from both sides, as a child and as parent and as step parent and non resident parent in these situations.

    I would have preferred to have married young and been happily married all my life but things don’t always work out and there is no defence to a dodgy divorce petition and the other side walking off and it is very difficult to tell if they will before you marry them. Some say don’t marry someone who’s parents are divorced as it sets a precedent and I can understand that and perhaps that is right. Still I don’t like or think it fair to rule people out on something that was not their fault, although perhaps I am over optimistic. I think it better to try and make the best of it including breaking up although the courts could do better helping people with that as explained before and how they could help, they are right to try and get people to sort things themselves but when they can’t don’t seem to know what to do financially or for family, although where there is abuse or neglect or adoption required they seem to help a lot better.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear James
      You don’t need permission to apply to the court for a child arrangements order if you’ve lived with the child for three out of five preceding years. Otherwise you do. Same as grandparents.

      • JamesB says:

        Thanks for that Marilyn.

        I assume that if you have PR you can apply for a child arrangements order regardless to if you have ever lived with them or not, let alone for 3 of the last 5 years, please confirm.

  2. JamesB says:

    Does a parent without PR have to live with the child for 3 of last 5 years for court to take an application for a child arrangements order?

    Do parents automatically have PR? Even if not on birth certificate.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear James
      Section 10 Children Act 1989 sets out who needs permission to apply and who can just make the application. If you have PR you can proceed. If you don’t and haven’t lived with the child for 3/5 yrs you need permission.

  3. JamesB says:

    I looked it up here.

    It seems as a parent if you have PR you apply for an arrangements order, if not then you apply for an arrangements order and PR at same time by the below process.

    Personally I have PR as was at birth for my children and on birth certificates and indeed see them all and pay for them all but not as much as their mothers would like but you can’t keep everyone happy although the woman good man bad thing does seem to be that establishment seem less worried about upsetting fathers than mothers in these cases and on this matter.

    I could have applied for arrangements order to see ex girlfriends 2 children but did not as didn’t want to as they were mean to me. I see their half sister, my daughter but not them. Not sure if they are upset by that, perhaps. Still can’t keep everyone happy all the time. Perhaps that situation will get easier over time as these things tend to, at lest they do without the csa or government getting involved.

    Please correct me if I am wrong.

  4. JamesB says:

    I have 4 children by 3 women and live with one of them and one of their mothers, no money at all from government and I pay for all of them and get shouted at by everyone, can be good fun quite often and I can and do enjoy it oftentimes and is a challenge although I must say being happily married to one person with 2 children would have been preferable we don’t always get what we want and unlike a lot of people, I am ok with my life.

  5. JamesB says:

    2 boys 2 girls, 1 special needs boy, ages from 1 to 16. Not as bad as mick Jagger, I intend to stop there. I am early 40s.

  6. JamesB says:

    I don’t mean to come across as glib or righteous on this subject it is difficult not to on this subject just writing my experiences as I like to read about others. I try to be educated about what I am involved in although I accept that perhaps is over optimistic and perhaps it is better not to know sometimes as can give a headache and perhaps knowing how everything works and does not work is not a worthwhile pursuit. Still trying to understand specific subjects where there is an interest, such as family law and health, is a useful and fair enough pursuit especially as in my case when it is interesting and you have family although others just delegate to lawyers which is also fair enough and it can be time consuming among other things going for it pros and cons. I think my interest was more out of necessity for seeing children and not being able to afford lawyer though and may be I know enough about it and have gone into it too much now and need to do other things, although it is good for exercising brain and interesting and not right and needs updating and effects me directly which is why perhaps I have been spending too much time on it and need to do other things now like work as am not paid for the time I spend on this.

  7. JamesB says:

    More planning and family planning is required by everyone especially me.

  8. Chris Powell says:

    Dear Marilyn, My two eldest grandsons, 11 and 9 years, live with their mother and her new partner who she intends to marry next year. She has just asked of my son to sign a step parent responsibility order. We wondered what the pros and cons are of this. He pays maintenance and sees them only every other week as their mother felt this was better for the boys. They also have football and other activities that mean that even this access is often limited. He was named as their father on their birth certificates and would like to see more of them, but with the distance involved, his work commitments and lack of funds it is very difficult. They never married and she has two children now by her new partner whom she will marry next year. He also has 3 daughters from 2 previous relationships. My son is also in a new relationship with two children from that. He does not wish to be difficult but also does not want to loose any of his rights. Despite contacting the boys school he does not always get important dates from them and their mother does not always inform my son of these too, any doctors appointments, school activitites etc are not always passed on either. If this step parent responsibility form is signed then will that lessen any of his already tenuous rights? My son and the boy’s mum have been separated now for about 7 years and she was the one that instigated this and left him to be with her current partner. Thank you in advance for any advice you can give.

  9. Yvie says:

    My ex dil moved on with a new partner who she subsequently married. She would be quite happy for the children to move on without their biological father. My son would never give up his right to be the children’s father under any circumstances.

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