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The grey areas of Parental Responsibility

Parental Responsibility was defined in the Children Act 1989 as being the “rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.”

In more practical terms, it means that when certain decisions must be made about a child, say foreign travel, medical treatment, change of name, all the holders of parental responsibility are allowed to have a say in the decision.

But what about those day-to-day decisions that need to be made when you are caring for your child?

We asked, Laura-Faye Trainor from our Birmingham office to join us on the blog to explain how it works and what it covers.

After a separation between parents, each parent with parental responsibility retains equal but independent rights and responsibilities to be informed and make appropriate decisions about their children. This is usually manageable for those big decisions but what about the day-to-day ones that need to be made there and then.

For example,

Can I decide whether our 8-year-old watches a 12A movie?
Who can I take the child to visit when they are in my care?
What activities can the child take part in when in my care?

To help understand the options available, I will refer to the case of A v A [2004] EWHC 142 (Fam) that involved concerned parents that had separated but were incapable of working in harmony.

After considerable intervention from the Court, National Youth Advocacy Service and psychologists, the Judge praised the parents for eventually working together to develop a schedule of when it was agreed that each parent could exercise their parental responsibility unilaterally or not.

The schedule was as follows:

1) Decisions that could be taken independently and without any consultation or notification to the other parent:

How the children are to spend their time during contact;
Personal care for the children;
Activities undertaken;
Religious and spiritual pursuits;
Continuance of medical treatment prescribed by GP.

2) Decisions where one parent would always need to inform the other parent of the decision, but did not need to consult or take the other parent’s views into account:

Medical treatment in an emergency;
Booking holidays or to take the children abroad in contact time;
Planned visits to the GP and the reasons for this.

3) Decisions that you would need to both inform and consult the other parent prior to making the decision.

School(s) a child is to attend, including admissions applications. With reference to which senior school the child should attend this is to be decided, considering the child’s own views and in consultation and with advice from their teachers;
Contact rotas in school holidays;
Planned medical and dental treatment;
Stopping medication prescribed for the children;
Attendance at school functions so they can be planned to avoid meetings wherever possible;
The age that children should be able to watch films i.e. recommended for children over 12 and 18.

Whilst not an extensive list it sets out the type of decisions that parents make and when consultation should take place. Of course, I acknowledge that there can be a difference in parenting styles. Ultimately though, this needs to be balanced against whether a day-to-day decision significantly impacts the welfare of that child.

The benefit of the child, not the parent(s).

Lord Fraser in the case of Gillick v West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority and another [1985] 3 All ER 402; said;

“Parental rights to control a child do not exist for the benefit of the parents. They exist for the benefit of the child and they are justified only in so far as they enable a parent to perform his duties towards the child, and towards other children in the family.”

What can be taken from this is the need for the parents to consider what is in the best interests of the child and this should be their paramount consideration.

Real-life situations

If Parent A wants to take the children to visit their family or new partner, if that relationship is safe, nurturing for the child and encourages the child’s development and sense of identity, this should not require any consideration from the other parent (Parent B).

If the reason that the Parent B does not want Parent A to take the child to visit a specific person is just that they do not like that person, Parent B should set aside their feelings about them and trust Parent A.

If the children have a difference in bed-times when they are visiting either parent, the parents should look at how it will impact upon the child. Even where it is the parent having contact wishes to maximise their time with the children, it is not sensible to regularly keep a child up well past their bedtime to meet the parent’s need for contact as this will cause upset to their routine. This will then have an impact upon the child’s wellbeing, ability to concentrate at home and school and their mood.

Managing parental responsibility

Lord Justice Wall, the Judge in the A v A case, gave the parents, in that case, some clear advice on exercising parental responsibility, and they are wise words to part on.

“It is a basic principle that post-separation, each parent with parental responsibility retains an equal and independent right and responsibility to be informed and make appropriate decisions about their children.
However, where children are being looked after by one parent, that parent needs to be able to make the day-to-day decisions that must be taken while that parent is caring for the children. Parents should not be seeking to interfere with one another in matters, which are taking place while they do not have the care of their children.”

In a nutshell, place the children’s needs above your own, both of you, apply some common sense and put clear boundaries in place to help you and your ex-partner make both the big and little decisions that parental responsibility requires.


Laura-Faye Trainor is a solicitor in our Birmingham office. She is a specialist in Child Law ranging from disputes over child arrangements to proceedings where Children Social Services are involved. Within her work, she has represented parents, grandparents and victims of domestic abuse in court proceedings.

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