The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 defines parental responsibility as all the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities which, by law, a parent has in relation to his child. The Order does not list what those rights and responsibilities are. However, it has been recognised that those with parental responsibility have:
Parental responsibility should, at all times, be exercised in the best interests of the child and all those with parental responsibility should be consulted before an important decision is made. However, if agreement cannot be reached, the court may be asked to resolve the issue.
If a child's parents were married to each other at the time of his birth, they will each have parental responsibility for him.
If a child's parents were not married to each other at the time of his birth, the mother will automatically have parental responsibility for him and the father may acquire parental responsibility for him by:
If an unmarried father has acquired parental responsibility by court order, agreement or registration, that responsibility can only be brought to an end by an order of the court.
If a court grants a residence order to an unmarried father, it must, if he would not otherwise have parental responsibility, also make a parental responsibility order in his favour.
A non-parent may acquire parental responsibility for a child by virtue of a court order.
A person who has parental responsibility for a child cannot surrender or transfer that responsibility. She or he can, however, arrange for someone else to discharge that responsibility on his or her behalf.
In addition, a non-parent may acquire parental responsibility for a child by obtaining a court order (for example, a residence order, emergency protection order or care order).
As a general rule, a parent does not automatically lose parental responsibility for a child simply because someone else acquires it. However, an adoption order transfers parental responsibility from the natural parents to the adoptive parents.
If a parent has parental responsibility for a child, she or he may appoint another person to be the child’s guardian in the event of his or her death.
Parental responsibility for a child continues post-divorce and is limited only to the extent that a voluntary agreement or court order settles issues between the parents or the parents and third parties.
If the parents are unmarried, they can enter into a parental responsibility agreement. This must be:
If the parents were married, but have separated or divorced, they can agree how they will meet their parental responsibilities and have that agreement made an order of court, which may be varied at a later stage to take account of changed circumstances.
In Northern Ireland there are a number of agencies that provide mediation services and can assist in the amicable resolution of disputes. Information can be found on the websites of the UK College of Family Mediators, Family Mediation Northern Ireland, Barnado's Northern Ireland, Family Support Northern Ireland, Dispute Resolution Service Northern Ireland and Mediation and Counselling Northern Ireland.
The courts in Northern Ireland have a broad range of powers at their disposal and, in particular, can resolve issues relating to –
The courts have recognized the need for flexible and practical arrangements wherever possible. So if a child is being looked after by one parent, that parent needs to be able to take the decisions that have to be taken while the child is in his or her care.
At the same time, there is an expectation that major decisions will be discussed with the other parent and resolved amicably. However if agreement is not reached the court can grant a specific issue order (which resolves a particular question) or a prohibited steps order (which specifies the type of decision that cannot be taken without the consent of the court).
If a residence order is in force with respect to a child, no person may cause the child to be known by another surname or remove him/her from the United Kingdom for one month or more without the written consent of every person who has parental responsibility or the consent of the court.
When the child is with one parent, that parent will make required routine decisions. However, it is expected that the other parent will be consulted about major decisions.
Ordinarily, an application for an order that will confer parental responsibility should be commenced in a Family Proceedings Court. However, if there are other family proceedings relating to the child pending in another court, the application may be commenced in that court.
Proceedings commenced in a Family Proceedings Court may be transferred up to a Family Care Centre or the High Court on a number of grounds (for example, if they are complex or involve a question of general public interest).
The addresses and telephone numbers of the courts can be found on the website of the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunal Service.
There are a number of forms that must be completed and lodged in the relevant court office. Most of these are in a standard form. The court office will be able to provide copies of the forms and explain how to complete them. However, court staff cannot give legal advice or tell you what to say. A court fee will also be payable.
When the application is lodged, the court office will set a date for the hearing and the other party will be notified of that date. If the matter is not resolved before the date set for hearing, a magistrate or judge will hear the evidence and reach a decision. There are no emergency procedures for obtaining parental responsibility.
You are entitled to apply for legal aid. However, the level of financial assistance provided (if any) is subject to a financial means assessment. Even if you are assessed as being financially eligible, you may have to make a financial contribution towards the costs. By agreement this contribution may be repaid to the Legal Services Agency over a period of time. In addition to the financial eligibility criteria you must also satisfy a merits test i.e. that there must be a reasonable grounds for bringing, or defending, the proceedings and it must be reasonable in all the circumstances to do so.
An appeal lies:
against the making or refusal to make an order.
On appeal, the High Court may, upon the application of a party, state a case on point of law for the opinion of the Court of Appeal. Otherwise, the High Court's decision is final.
The Court of Appeal's decision on the case stated by the High Court is final.
In a Family Proceedings Court (where most matters relating to children are dealt with) an application may be made to address a specific issue relating to the exercise of parental responsibility. Contact details are noted above.
Council Regulation (EC) No 2001/2003 (“Brussels IIa) provides for certain decisions on the exercise of parental responsibility given in one Member State to be enforced in another Member State.
The decision must have been declared enforceable in that other State. In Northern Ireland you must apply to have the decision registered in the High Court.
You would have to oppose the recognition in the court in the other Member State under the procedure applicable in that court.
Proceedings must be brought in the court in the jurisdiction where the child is habitually resident.
If the court in Northern Ireland decides it has jurisdiction to deal with the proceedings, it will apply the law in Northern Ireland.
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