The rights of unmarried and married parents « McAlister Family Law


The rights of unmarried and married parents

Fiona Wood


Yesterday we received the happy news that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his fiancé, Carrie Symonds, welcomed a baby boy. Whilst previous Prime Ministers have welcomed new additions to their family whilst living at Number 10, this new baby is the first to be born to unmarried parents.  

This may be something new for Downing Street, but it is an ever increasing trend in this country. In 2017 47.6% of babies born in England and Wales were born to mothers who were not married or in a civil partnership. In 2018 this increased to 48.1%. Society is changing, but does the law relating to parental rights reflect this change?

In England and Wales the legal right that parents can have is called “parental responsibility”. This gives a parent the legal right to have a say in the important decisions in their child’s life, such as education and consenting to medical treatment. All mothers automatically have this from the birth of their child. However, the position for fathers is not so straightforward.

When the Children Act 1989 first came into force, it stated that all mothers and only fathers that were married to the mother of their child would automatically have parental responsibility for that child. Unmarried fathers could therefore only obtain parental responsibility through a formal legal process or by marrying the mother of their child.

It was then recognised that this was out of step with society’s views and the law was changed so that an unmarried father who is stated on the child’s birth certificate to be the child’s father automatically has parental responsibility. This is the position for all births registered after 1st December 2003.

This does mean that an unmarried father, who is not named as the father of their child on the child’s birth certificate, does not have parental responsibility for their child. Both parents, if unmarried, usually have to attend the registrar to register the child’s birth, for both their names to appear on the birth certificate. Sometimes both parents attending is not practical – for example if the father is working when the registrar is available, a problem that a busy Prime Minster may have.

It is still possible for an unmarried father to obtain parental responsibility for his child, even if he is not on the birth certificate, but this is by way of a formal legal process or by marrying the child’s mother.


If you are unsure of your legal rights regarding your child you should obtain advice from a specialist family lawyer. 

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