Step-parents and Parental Responsibility

Private Law (Child Arrangements Programme (CAP))

29 February 2024

What is parental responsibility?

The Children Act 1989 s.3 sets out the legal definition of parental responsibility as, ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property’.

Parental responsibility is therefore, essentially everything to do with raising a child.  In addition to the parents’ duty to provide shelter, food, safety and financial support to the child, the parents are responsible for making decisions for their child.  These decisions include the child’s name, where the child lives, where the child should attend school, what religion is chosen for the child and whether the child should have medical treatment.

A child’s mother automatically has parental responsibility for a child born to her, and a biological father will have parental responsibility for a child if the parents were married at the time the child was born, if he is named on the child’s birth certificate or if he has a court order granting him parental responsibility.

 Why a step-parent may wish to have Parental Responsibility for a step-child

A step-parent who is married to, or in a civil partnership with, a parent who has parental responsibility for a child does not automatically obtain parental responsibility for that child by virtue of their marriage or civil partnership.

The step-parent may be an integral part of the child’s life and may find themselves needing to exercise parental responsibility for a child in their care.  For example, the step-parent is not able to consent to medical treatment for the child if the child sustains an injury which requires medical treatment whilst in their care and the biological parent is not contactable.

A step-parent who obtains parental responsibility for a child will have the same legal rights and obligations for the child as all others with parental responsibility, including equal say in the child’s upbringing.  A step-parent obtaining parental responsibility for a child does not remove parental responsibility from an absent biological parent.

Routes to step-parents obtaining Parental Responsibility

 There are several routes for a step-parent to obtain parental responsibility for the child:

  1. Parental Responsibility Agreement[1]: The most straightforward legal option is for a Parental Responsibility Agreement to be drawn up. This is a formal document which must be signed by all parties and registered at court.  All other people with parental responsibility for the child must consent to this agreement, and the step-parent must be married to a biological parent, so this route is not always feasible.
  2. Child Arrangements Order[2]: If the step-parent is successful in obtaining a Child Arrangements Order for a child whom they care caring for to live with them, either with the child’s biological parent or by themselves, then this conveys parental responsibility.
  3. Parental Responsibility Order[3]: The court may make a Parental Responsibility Order following an application by the step-parent.
  4. Becoming the child’s legal guardian: If the step-parent becomes the child’s legal guardian by way of step-parent adoption or special guardianship then they obtain parental responsibility for the child.  This places them in the same position as the biological parent with parental responsibility.

Court applications for step-parents to obtain a Parental Responsibility Order

Attendance at a family mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM) is a compulsory step prior to issuing an application for a Parental Responsibility Order, unless a MIAM exemption applies.

The court application is made on a Form C1

When determining an application for parental responsibility, the court will have regard to the welfare checklist, the child’s welfare will therefore be the court’s paramount consideration[4].

In assessing the child’s welfare, the court will have regard to[5]:

(a)the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);

(b)his physical, emotional and educational needs;

(c)the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;

(d)his age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which the court considers relevant;

(e)any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;

(f)how capable each of his parents, and any other person in relation to whom the court considers the question to be relevant, is of meeting his needs;

(g)the range of powers available to the court under this Act in the proceedings in question.

The court will also consider the degree of commitment which the applicant has shown the child, the degree of attachment which exists between the applicant and the child and the reasons for the applicant applying for the order[6][7]. The appropriateness of an order had to be considered on the facts of each individual case. If, in all the circumstances, there were factors adverse to the father sufficient to tip the balance against the order proposed, it would not be right to make the order.[8]

In considering whether, or not, to make a Parental Responsibility Order the court must have regard to whether it would be better for the child to have the order made than for there to be no order[9].

The team at Becket Chambers take instructions in all areas of Family Law. For further enquiries please do not hesitate to contact our clerks at

[1] S.4(1)(b) Children Act 1989
[2] S.8 CA 1989
[3] S.4(1)(b) CA 1989
[4] S.1 CA 1989
[5] s.1(3) CA 1989
[6] Re: H (minors) (Local Authority: Parental Rights) (No.3) [1991] Fam 151
[7] Re: S (A Child) [2013] EWHC 1295 (fam)
[8] Re M (Parental Responsibility Order) [2014] 1 FLR 339
[9] (s1(5) CA 1989).

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