How long does a father have to be absent to lose rights in the UK?

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How long does a father have to be absent to lose rights in the UK?

It is often a misconception in the UK that a father who has been absent from their child/children’s lives for a prolonged period, lose their rights as a parent. This is simply untrue. In England and Wales, there is no legal timeframe after which a father automatically loses parental rights due to absence. Irrespective of them being absent for months or even years, fathers will nonetheless have the right to be involved in decision making in relation to their child/children.

Parental Responsibility

Parental responsibility, as demonstrated in section 3 of the Children Act 1989, encompasses the “rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child.” Parental responsibility goes beyond the day-to-day decisions made when caring for a child, it includes more significant decisions on the upbringing of a child, such as:

  • Deciding where your child lives
  • Making decisions on how and where your child’s is educated
  • Registering or changing your child’s name
  • Consenting to your child’s operation or medical treatment
  • Accessing your child’s medical records
  • Consenting to taking your child abroad for holidays or extended periods of time
  • Determining the religion your child should be brought up with

A child’s birth mother automatically has parental responsibility. A child’s biological father will automatically have parental responsibility if they are married to the mother at the time of the birth, or if he is named on the child’s birth certificate as their father. Unmarried fathers will not automatically have parental responsibility, but they can acquire it by obtaining a parental responsibility agreement or obtaining a court order.

When exercising parental responsibility, it is expected that a mother and father reach an agreement together, with the child’s best interests and wellbeing at the forefront of their decision. Therefore, where a father has been absent for a long time, the mother is still expected to consult with the father when making decisions concerning their child’s upbringing. A mother and father should strive to maintain a positive co-parenting relationship as this is in the best interest of the child(ren).

The position of an absent father

The law in England and Wales makes no specific reference to a period after which an absent father would automatically lose his parental rights. Therefore, there is no distinction made of the rights a father holds if they have been absent for 5 days, 5 months or 5 years. A father’s prolonged absence from his child’s life is not seen in this jurisdiction as a sufficient reason to remove his parental rights or duties. The primary objective of the courts in children proceedings is to ensure that children maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents, provided it is in the child’s best interests and there are no significant safeguarding or welfare concerns. Even where a child does not have a meaningful relationship with their father due to absence, if the father later shows dedication to being involved in that child’s life, the court will often conclude that a relationship should be built with the father as it would be in the child’s best interests.

The only mechanism through which a father’s parental responsibility can be removed is through an application to the court. However, such applications will only be successful in very limited circumstances. Parental responsibility will not be terminated if the child does not want contact with their father, where the father refuses to see the child, where the father refuses to pay child maintenance or where the father has ‘disappeared’ from his child’s life. Parental responsibility once bestowed, is very rarely removed.

However, absence may affect an unmarried father’s application for a parental responsibility order. While family courts aim to facilitate positive relationships with both parents, they do consider the “degree of commitment” when considering whether to make a parental responsibility order.

Parental responsibility does not guarantee a parent can spend time with their child. Therefore, even if a father has parental responsibility, if  they have been absent from their child’s life, it may influence decisions regarding arrangements to spend time with or live with the child in the future. Where a previously absent father seeks to spend time with their child, it is unlikely that the father’s earlier absence will prevent all future contact between them.  As previously mentioned, the court will want to facilitate a meaningful relationship between a child and both parents, where it is in their  best interests to do so. Therefore, a previously absent father is likely to see the court seek to build up time with a child gradually and create a plan for the future that takes into consideration the length of absence.

Some individuals may not agree with the courts approach as it allows fathers who have chosen to be absent from the lives of their children to retain the ability to make decisions concerning their upbringing. However, when considering such matters, it is the family court’s duty to ensure a child’s best interests are always paramount and, where possible, ensuring a child maintains a positive relationship with both parents.

What to do if a father is concerned about his parental rights?

If you are concerned about your parental rights or seeking to restore contact with your child, it is advisable to seek legal advice. Our specialist family lawyers in can help you, please get in touch to arrange a consultation.



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