Family Mediation

When can a court terminate parental responsibility?

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Walker Family Law
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When can a court terminate parental responsibility?

Most parents will have ‘parental responsibility’ for their children. Parental responsibility means the legal responsibility to do whatever is necessary to look after the child.

Parental responsibility is normally shared by both parents, irrespective of whether they have separated. Having parental responsibility can therefore be of great importance to a separated parent who wishes to continue to play a full role in their child’s upbringing.

However, parental responsibility is not necessarily permanent. The court can, in certain circumstances, terminate a parent’s parental responsibility, as two recent cases have shown.

What the law says

Before looking at the particular facts of those two cases, we need to consider what the law says regarding the termination of parental responsibility.

The first point to make is that there is only one mechanism by which parental responsibility may be removed: an order of the court.

When considering whether to make such an order the welfare of the child is the ‘paramount consideration’. In other words, the court has to decide that it is better for the child to remove parental responsibility from one of its parents than to leave that parent with parental responsibility (obviously, it is usually considered best for the child if both parents have parental responsibility).

The court may also ask the question: if this parent was applying for parental responsibility, would it be granted to them? When considering this question the court will take into account such matters as the level of attachment between the parent and the child, and the parent’s commitment to the child. If the answer to the question is ‘no’, then that is an important factor to take into account when deciding whether to terminate parental responsibility.

And if the court concludes that the parent is unlikely to exercise parental responsibility in a way that would be beneficial to the child, then clearly it would be best for the welfare of the child for parental responsibility to be terminated.

Two recent cases

So to the two cases, in both of which the father’s parental responsibility was terminated by the court.

The first case concerned two sisters, aged seven and two. Their father had parental responsibility for them, having been named on their birth certificates, and their mother was applying to the court for his parental responsibility to be terminated.

The facts in the case were quite shocking. In March 2019 the father stabbed the mother fifteen times, as she was walking home from school with the older child, who was five at the time. The father was subsequently convicted of the attempted murder of the mother, for which he is serving a prison sentence, with a minimum term of thirteen and a half years.

But it did not stop there, in April 2020 the father made a call to Crimestoppers stating that the mother was going to be murdered on that day. As a result of this the mother and children had to be rehomed, and additional security measures were put in place.

In these circumstances it may come as no surprise that the court granted the mother’s application to terminate the father’s parental responsibility.

The second case concerned a child aged eight years. Her parents separated in 2014, and she remained with the mother. In 2015 the father came under investigation by the police for sexual offences against a child. In the light of this, and on the advice of the police, the mother stopped the father’s contact with the child. The father has had nothing to do with her since.

The father was subsequently convicted of sexual offences against children, and served a term of imprisonment.

Following this, the father was convicted of harassing a female victim, including making threats to have her killed. The Probation Service concluded that two categories of people were at risk from the father: children and intimate partners.

The mother’s solicitors wrote to the father inviting him to consent to the removal of parental responsibility. He did not reply, and the mother applied to the court for an order terminating his parental responsibility.

Hearing the application Mr Justice MacDonald was satisfied that if the father were applying for parental responsibility, such an order would not be granted.

There was no attachment with the child (who has no recollection of him), he showed no commitment to her (he had failed to engage in the proceedings), and he had taken no steps since his convictions to address his offending behaviour, or the risk he had been assessed to continue to present to children and former partners. In addition, Mr Justice Macdonald was satisfied that were the father to have parental responsibility there was a significant risk he would seek to use it to control the mother.

Accordingly, he found that it was in the child’s best interests to terminate the father’s parental responsibility.

You can find out more about parental responsibility, and what it means, on this page.