“A decision to remove parental responsibility from a father is a very serious matter.”
So said Ms F Judd QC in the course of her judgment in the High Court case C v D & Another. Indeed it is a very serious matter. What was it that made her decide that it was in a child’s best interests for his father’s parental responsibility to be removed?
As mentioned in the judgment, the reported cases where a father’s parental responsibility has been terminated are almost always where the father concerned has perpetrated serious physical abuse, if not upon the subject child, then upon other members of the family. The situation here, however, was very different.
The case concerned a boy born in 2012. His parents were not married, but his father had parental responsibility for him by virtue of being registered on the birth certificate. The parents’ relationship ended not long after he was born. The mother and the child then went to live with her parents, where they remain.
In July 2016 the mother applied for specific issue and prohibited steps orders to enable her to take the boy for assessments with respect to his autism, and also for him to be immunised. Orders were made permitting these in December 2016. In October 2017 the report of the child’s autism assessment was received, setting out in some details of his condition and the support that he would need. The report was sent to the father. Following this the father sent a number of “deeply unpleasant emails” to various people. He also attended the boy’s school and posted written material through the letterboxes of the mother’s neighbours about him. As a consequence of this, the mother made an application for a non-molestation order, which was granted in November 2017.
Thereafter the mother issued the application which was the subject of this judgment, for orders removing the father’s parental responsibility and permitting a change of the child’s surname. She also applied for an extension of the non-molestation order. I will concentrate here on the application in relation to the father’s parental responsibility.
The mother’s case was essentially that the father had repeatedly obstructed her efforts to ensure the child received the medical and educational support he required, and was likely to continue to do so. Her applications were supported by the child’s Guardian. The father strongly opposed the application to remove his parental responsibility, although he chose not to attend the hearing.
Ms Judd found that there had been a lot of examples of the father’s behaviour affecting decisions about the child. She listed a number of them, and said:
“It is clear from the history set out above that the father has repeatedly behaved in an abusive, intimidating and deeply unpleasant manner to the mother and other people who are involved in [the child’s] care and support. His responses are repeatedly belligerent, and nowhere does he appear to enter into a constructive discussion about what is best for his son.”
There did not seem to be any prospect of a change in the father’s attitude.
Ms Judd also found that the boy’s general care would be compromised if his family was placed under stress and if the need to make decisions about him led to conflict and delay. If his father continued to write about him in disparaging and rejecting terms, as he had done, this was likely to cause him further distress and emotional harm.
Further to this, the father had not shown any significant commitment to the child in the last few years, in the sense of being genuinely concerned for his well-being. If this was an application for parental responsibility, said Ms Judd, the conclusion she would come to was that his reasons for wanting the order to be made were so that he could object to decisions the mother wished to make, and by doing so control the mother and others.
She therefore decided that it was in the child’s best interests for his father’s parental responsibility to be removed, saying that she believed there was “no element of the band of responsibilities that make up parental responsibility which this father could in present or in foreseeable circumstances exercise in a way which would be beneficial for the child.” She also made this poignant comment:
“It is undoubtedly a sad situation for [the child], who will have to grow up for the foreseeable future without the benefit of having a father with that status and involvement. It is sad too for the father, who may have deep rooted and unresolved difficulties of his own which lead him to behave in this way. Unless he is willing to address these, there is little that anyone can do for him.”
Ms Judd also found that it was in the child’s best interests for his surname to be changed to remove his father’s surname, although she declined to extend the non-molestation order, as the father had not been given notice of that application.
You can read the full judgment here.