Step families are fast becoming the normal family type in modern society, but step parents have very little rights to the child in law.
Step-parents often play a significant role in a child’s life. They will often form a close bond with the child, living with them, caring for them and providing for their daily needs. However, step-parents do not have any legal standing in relation to the child.
When legislation to reflect modern society is considered, the issue of step parents and their standing is an area that has been largely overlooked.
This is defined under S.3(1) of the Children Act 1989 as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority’ which by law a parent has in relation to his or her child.
Parental responsibility will include general care, such as providing food, clothing and a home for a child. It also covers important decisions regarding schooling, medical treatment and religion. If more than one person has parental responsibility then there must be consultation over these decisions.
Who has Parental Responsibility?
- A biological mother has parental responsibility automatically.
- A biological father has parental responsibility automatically if named on the birth certificate (after 1 December 2003) or married to the mother at the time of birth.
- If the biological father does not meet the criteria above they can acquire this through the courts through a parental responsibility agreement or order.
A Step Parent does not acquire Parental Responsibility through marriage to the biological mother.
How can a Step Parent acquire Parental Responsibility?
- A Parental Responsibility Agreement
This is a formal document. Each party with parental responsibility must consent and sign this. It can then be registered at court.
- A Parental Responsibility Order
This is an order made by the court. When deciding whether it is appropriate the court will consider the step parent’s bond and commitment to the child. They will also consider the consent of parties with parental responsibility. The Order would remain effective if the step parent’s relationship with the biological parent were to end. These orders are therefore not commonly made.
- An Adoption Order
An adoption order can be applied for jointly and granted to a couple who show they are in an ‘enduring relationship’ (whether the parties are married or not). It will usually only be granted if the other parent with responsibility agrees to the adoption, or has died. The step parent would legally become the parent of the child, with all the duties and responsibilities this carries. It extinguishes the parental responsibility of any other parent who is not a party to the application. This means the biological parent must also apply.
When the court considers any application from a step parent the child’s welfare is paramount. The step parent will need to show commitment to the child and that the order made will impact positively upon the child.