Kayleigh Zmak, a paralegal at law firm Lewis Denley, explains the rules around what legal protections you have as a dad.
A child has the right to have a meaningful relationship with both their father and their mother. The misconception around parental rights is often due to the confusion, in respect of who has parental responsibility for the child.
Parental responsibility is the rights, duties, responsibilities, and authority given to parents by law, to make decisions on behalf of their child.
Mothers automatically have parental responsibility when their child is born. However, a father only has parental responsibility in the following circumstances:
If none of the above apply, steps can be taken for a father to be granted parental responsibility which will give them the right to have a say in important decisions in their child’s life.
It is important to note that even without parental responsibility, a meaningful relationship between a father and their children is encouraged.
A father has the right to be involved in important decisions relating to their child, where he has parental responsibility. The law does not favor one parent’s right over the other. The day-to-day decisions can be taken by the parent with whom the child is living with but all individuals with parental responsibility are entitled to be involved in the significant decisions relating to medical treatment, education, the religion in which the child is brought up.
If you have parental responsibility and there is no court order specifying where the child will live, as a father, you have the same right to spend time with your child as the mother does.
It is assumed by the court, that the involvement of each parent in a child’s life will further their welfare, and every parent will benefit from this presumption, unless there is evidence to suggest that this would put a child at risk of suffering harm (A Father v A Mother  EWFC 54).
If there are circumstances where there are concerns for a child’s safety, where there is a risk of harm to the child, if it is appropriate, arrangements can be put in place to mitigate this risk. A common example of this is contact taking place at a contact centre, where the contact can be supervised. This applies equally to mothers and fathers.
In the first instance, if it is appropriate, it is encouraged for parents to attend mediation, to try and resolve matters between themselves. Mediation involves parents meeting with an independent third party, who helps the parties reach an agreement in relation to the children involved. This can be especially helpful in resolving disputes around child arrangements.
However, if mediation is not appropriate, or is unsuccessful, and the parties are unable to reach an agreement between themselves, or through solicitors, an application can be made to the court. The court will then, if the parties are still unable to agree between themselves, make the final decision in relation to the arrangements for the children. If the father does not have parental responsibility, the court can also award this.
The court will consider the welfare of the child and make an order that will best reflect the child’s needs and interests. The court will not automatically order that a child will spend more time with their mother, unless this is in the child’s best interests. This can be seen in the court’s decision in Re F (Shared Residence Order) , where the court upheld that the children were to live with their father and to stay with their mother.
The court recognises the importance of children having consistent and meaningful relationships with both parents and will actively promote this. The court deems that a child being deprived of a proper relationship with one of their parents, for a significant period, causes harm to a child (W (Children)  EWFC B215] and is not in their best interests.
Children having relationships with both parents can happen in many ways. All child arrangements ordered by the court are tailored to the specific matter before the court and will reflect the children’s best interests in that situation.
Each order made is case specific and will depend on the facts, but the point that runs consistently throughout all children proceedings is that any order made is one which is in the child’s best interest. In determining what this is, the court has paramount consideration of the child’s welfare and the welfare checklist (discussed below). The approach and decision of the court is one which is principled and reasoned, not one which is biased, in favor of mothers.
When making any decision relating to a child, the court’s paramount consideration will always be the welfare of the child involved, as well as having regard to the following factors, known as the welfare checklist.
Mothers and fathers with parental responsibility have equal rights and responsibilities. The reality is that a child may spend more time with one parent, because that is what is in their best interests for a variety of reasons, but this does not mean that the other parent has fewer rights.
The court commonly makes orders where both parents spend meaningful time with their children and have an active role and say in their lives. ‘Shared residence orders are no longer an unusual order’ (Re A (A Child: Joint Residence/Parental Responsibility) . The law wants to move parents forward and to actively encourage children to have on-going and meaningful relationships with both parents, because this is a child’s right, and this right will be protected and upheld by the court, provided it is safe and appropriate to do so.