The legal definition of Parental Responsibility is "All the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to a child and his property."
In practical terms, having parental responsibility as a step-parent allows you to be involved in decisions relating to the child's schooling, medical treatment, religion, whether they can marry (if they are under the age of 18), and how the child is disciplined.
Perhaps the most important day-to-day considerations related to medical treatment and how the child is disciplined.
Were the child to be involved in an accident, and need medical treatment, were their other parents unavailable, and in the absence of your holding parental responsibility, you would not have the right to make decisions about how the child was treated.
With regard to discipline, only an adult with parental responsibility may smack a child. For parties with parental responsibility there exists a defence in law of reasonable chastisement. For any other person, no such defence exists, and they could be charged with assault.
Section 112 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 amended the Children Act 1989 to include a new section 4A which introduces the concept of Step-parent Parental Responsibility.
This can be acquired via a formal agreement between the parent(s) with parental responsibility and the step-parent of the child. It also provides for a step-parent to be able to apply to the court for an order for parental responsibility.
You can gain parental responsibility for your step-child in a number of ways and these are detailed below:
If you have a residence order (or are named in a shared residence order as a party to the order) in relation to the child, you automatically have parental responsibility.
Note though that YOU must be named in the residence order as a resident parent. You do not gain parental responsibility for step-children via marriage to their biological parent.
If you are specifically named in a child arrangements order as a person with whom the children live, you automatically have parental responsibility.
Note though that YOU must be named as a person with whom the children live, rather than a person with whom they spend time or otherwise have contact with.
If the Court grants me a Parental Responsibility Order, this does not strip anyone else of their parental responsibility? More than one person can have parental responsibility for a child.
It's important to note that if a step-parent is granted parental responsibility by way of a parental responsibility order, they do not lose this if they divorce the biological parent.
Matters relating to step-parent parental responsibility are set out in Section 4A of the Children Act 1989, which was brought in as an amendment in Section 112 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.
Under section 4A, a parental responsibility agreement or parental responsibility order may only be brought to an end by an order of the court following an application by either any other person with parental responsibility for the child, or the child themself if the Court grants them leave to apply and supports their application.
You would use Form C1 if applying to court for a Parental Responsibility Order.
You can gain parental responsibility for your step-child by entering into a voluntary, formal arrangement with all of the other people who have parental responsibility for the child.
It should be noted that all mothers automatically have parental responsibility while fathers gain PR in a variety of ways (see our guide on Parental Responsibility).
If all parties with parental responsibility have agreed to sign the agreement, once you've completed the form (but not signed them!), all parties who must sign must go along to either a Family Proceedings Court, County Court, or the Principal Registry of the Family Division to have it signed and witnessed.
You will need to bring a copy of the child's full birth certificate, and photographic evidence identifying all of the parties who are to sign (ideally photo driving licenses or passports).
All parties with parental responsibility must agree, although it may be the case that the child's biological father does not have parental responsibility.
The child's father will have parental responsibility if:
The agreement must be signed in front of a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate), Justice's Clerk, or a Court Official who is authorised by the Court to administer oaths. You will have first needed to complete the form, and bring with it a copy of the child's full birth certificate.
The form to use is a Step Parent Parental Responsibility Agreement. For lesbian partners of mothers, there is a different form.
The effect of an Adoption Order is that it removes parental responsibility from every other party. Your spouse will also need to be a party to the adoption order as the law requires that married couples adopt jointly.
If the child's other parent is still alive, their rights and parental responsibility are removed (and those of any other party with parental responsibility), and given to the adoptive parent(s). The child will no longer have any legal ties to the parties who lose parental responsibility and their extended family on that side.
This could affect the child financially as they lose the right to maintenance or inheritance from a parent who isn't a party to the Adoption Order.
Step-parents would not need to be approved by an Adoption Agency, however the Court will ask Social Services to prepare a report, to provide the judge with information about you and your family, whether alternatives to adoption are more appropriate, and whether adoption is in the child's best interests.
Any other parent must agree to the adoption unless there are exceptional circumstances.
If the biological parent dies
If a child arrangements order exists and you are named in the order a person with whom the children live or have contact, arrangements should continue unless the order is varied. Otherwise, even if your partner was named in the order as the person with whom the children live, they might go to live full time with their other parent. It is best if this can be resolved amicably to reduce the stress on the children.
If not, and since you had been a party to a marriage where the children were also part of your family, you would not need the court´s permission to apply for a court order in respect of the children (e.g. for contact or residence). The other parent would still be able to contest your reasons. The need for permission should not be a major hurdle though, since if you have a relationship with the children, the court is likely to consider your request for a continued relationship and your reasons for this.
It's better for everyone if such matters can be agreed without the need for an application to the court. The court expects you to attempt Mediation before making a court application (see our Mediation guide).
If the biological parent stopped you from seeing your step child you could apply to the court for a child arrangements order (the legislation that applies is the Children Act 1989 Sections 10(5)(a), 10(5)(b) and Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA) Section 75).
As a step parent, you have a right to apply for certain court orders in your own right, and these rights were extended to same sex couples under the Civil Partnership Act. Step-parents can also apply to the court for parental responsibility.
Reasons you could give in the event of your partner's death to justify your application could include...
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Michael Robinson © 2014
Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales
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