If you have a child with your partner but aren’t married, you do have rights and responsibilities. Since the new law in 2003, if you were present when the birth was registered and your name is on the birth certificate as the child’s father, your position as a parent is equal to the mothers.
That law supplemented the 1989 Children Act, which was intended to emphasise parental responsibilities over rights, and believed that arrangements which were best for the children could be made without things having to devolve into court actions. It was idealistic, and of course the reality has often proved different from the intention.
However well-intentioned the law, it can contain some nasty surprises for you. If you weren’t married to your partner and your name isn’t on the child’s birth certificate, although you know you’re the biological father (which can often happen pre-2003), you could find you have no right to see your children unless your former partner allows it, or have any influence in their lives at all.
If your name isn’t on that birth certificate, you’ll need a Parental Responsibility Agreement. Once signed and properly filed with the court, this will give you full parental rights and responsibilities. The form itself can be downloaded from the Families Need Fathers website although it requires the signature of both you and the mother (you must both be biological parents of the child), and the child has to be living in either England or Wales for the law to apply. Of course, if your former partner won’t sign, then you’re stuck, and be forced to take the case to a hearing in court. If the mother continues to assert you’re not the father, the legal bills could become very high indeed. You’ll need to apply for a Parental Responsibility Order. The court will consider the welfare of the child, and you’ll find that an Order will be granted only if it’s better than not granting an Order at all.
In recent years there have been protests regarding fathers’ right in the U.K. (witness some of the antics of Fathers4Justice, for instance). However, according to government statistics, the vast majority of arrangements for contact (90%) are made informally, and in 2003, only 2% of the applications to court for contact orders were refused. In other words, in spite of the horror stories, you should have a good chance of contact, especially if your child was born after 2003, or you have yours and your former partner’s signatures on a Parental Responsibility Agreement.
Types of Orders
You should be familiar with the types of orders you’ll encounter once you’re separated. A Residence Order determines which parent the children will live with – which in most instances is the mother, although you can apply for a Residence Order (this is possibly even if you don’t have Parental Responsibility). Realistically speaking, though, don’t hold your breath. A Contact Order specifies when and under what circumstances you can see your children. The court has to consider the welfare of the children when granting, or not granting, a contact order.
A Prohibited Steps Order prevents someone (not necessarily just a person with Parental Responsibility) doing certain things with your children, such as removing them from the country.
Specific Issue Orders are drawn up to deal with particular items, where you and your former partner can’t reach agreement. They’re often requested for education and medical issues. You’ll need to use a solicitor to apply for any of these orders.