The rights of step-parents to stay in children's lives

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Does the law recognise the diversity of different family structures and the importance of step-parent relationships?

BBC Radio 4's programme 'Woman's Hour' this week touched upon the case of a lady who had separated from her partner and, in doing so, had been separated from his children. She described the profound impact this had upon her, as someone who had willingly played an active role in their upbringing and their care, and her sadness at having to accept that she could no longer do so. This raises an interesting point as to how the law accommodates step-parent relationships with children. The breakdown of a parental relationship will have a significant effect on any child, irrespective of, for example, whether their "dad" is their natural father or a step-father who has played an equally significant role in their upbringing.

Whether married or unmarried, the default position is that, without parental responsibility, a step-parent is not legally entitled to exercise any of the rights, duties and responsibilities that come with parenthood. To give an example, this would mean that any urgent medical treatment a child might need whilst in the sole care of their step-parent would first have to be sanctioned by their natural parent, who would have parental responsibility and could therefore do so. This would remain the case even where there has been no breakdown in a relationship, and the family is happily settled with the natural parent and step-parent taking equally-active roles in bringing up the children of the family. 

Where the parties are married, a step-parent has a number of options in order to acquire parental responsibility. Firstly, and where all other parental responsibility holders are agreeable to the same, a parental responsibility agreement may be drawn up. However, other parental responsibility holders (most notably, the children's other natural parent) may object to this being drawn up. In these circumstances, the step-parent could apply to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order to be made in their favour. In doing so, they would acquire parental responsibility for as long as the children lived with them. Where the parties are not married, the step-parent would remain permitted to apply for the same type of Order.

Upon the breakdown of a relationship, and even where a natural parent initially contests a step-parent entering into a parental responsibility agreement, mediation is an option available to unmarried and married couples. Mediation offers the possibility of engaging a neutral third party to assist in finding a solution which accommodates both parties' views, these hopefully having been formed with the children's best interests in mind.

Should mediation fail, a step-parent retains the option to apply to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order and ask for the Court to make a decision as to the contact a step-parent might be permitted to have with the children. This is likely, however, to be a difficult application with varying prospects of success depending on the circumstances of the matter. In addition, the ability to do so without prior permission from the Court will depend on the amount of time which has passed since the breakdown in the relationship, a step-parent requiring the Court's permission where the children have not lived with them in the last three years.

The law does, therefore, recognise the diversity of different family structures and the importance of step-parent relationships. The available mechanisms permit step-parents, such as the lady mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, the opportunity to ask the Court to step in so that they can remain a figure in their step-children's lives.

For further information on gaining a parental order or for any issues you may experience during relationship breakdown, please contact the Blake Morgan family team.