Warning: filectime(): stat failed for /home/martiap4/public_html/clients2/cflp/error_log in /home/martiap4/public_html/clients2/cflp/wp-content/themes/salient-child/header.php on line 43

Parental responsibility and responsible parenting

The concept of parental responsibility for children is one of the core principles of family law. Parental responsibility means the legal rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority a parent has for a child and the child’s property, and a person who has parental responsibility for a child has the right and obligation to make decisions about their care and upbringing. (If you want more information about who has parental responsibility automatically and how it can be acquired, click here.)

The law now makes clear the attitude of the family courts for years: that children benefit from both parents being in their lives, so long as it is safe. When considering arrangements for a child, a court must presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of each parent in the life of the child will further the child’s welfare. “Involvement” means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time.

The courts are usually quite reluctant to place restrictions on parental involvement and parental responsibility, but will do so if necessary because they need to exercise their overriding and paramount consideration regarding the welfare (best interests) of the child. They have an eye to the past and present, and another on the future, understanding that as children grow up, the wider effects of either having or not having one parent involved in their lives will start to play out. Indirect contact – letters between parent and child, for example – can be a way of keeping a parent involved in the child’s life when spending time together is not in the child’s best interests for some reason. Often, when the courts order indirect rather than direct contact, they may also include provisions for the parent to be kept informed about the child’s educational progress or other milestones in his or her life.

A rather upsetting and extreme case has just come to light where the court, unusually, ordered that the father should be prohibited from exercising his parental responsibility for the rest of his children’s childhoods. The father in this case had been convicted of two offences of battery against the mother, and breach of an injunction that he should stay away from her. He continued to deny these incidents occurred at all. One incident it was not possible for him to deny is set out by the judge in two paragraphs from the judgment:

“ 17. On 24 July 2012 at approximately 7am the father set fire to the passenger seat of his own car and drove it into the family home whilst the mother and the children were inside. Following the impact the father got out of his car and further fanned the car fire by pouring accelerant on it. The house then caught fire. The mother recollects the children’s fish tank shattering and the pictures on the walls and the television melting. The mother and the children were fortunate to escape the burning family home without sustaining injury.

18.  The father maintains that his actions in driving a burning car into the family home constituted at attempt to take his own life and that the incident had its genesis in alleged mental health issues. The incident recounted above was however caught on a CCTV camera. That camera recorded that the father stood watching the burning car and the burning house, laughing and saying “I couldn’t have wished for it to go any better, if I’m not having the house neither is she”.   There is no evidence before this court regarding the father’s mental health and nor has the father sought to introduce any.“

The father was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. However, the matter did not end there. Whilst in prison, there was evidence the father repeatedly sought out inmates whom he asked to burn down the mother’s house and her neighbour’s house, offering plans, information and payment. He was eventually sentenced to a discretionary life sentence, with the judge observing that he posed a significant risk to the safety of the mother and children, and their friends and family. There was evidence to suggest that the children were severely traumatised, as one might expect.

The mother and children had moved to a new, secure address. Once the father had accepted that the previous court order for indirect contact between him and the children should be discharged, the single issue that remained to be determined by the family court was whether the father should, as he wanted, receive annual academic progress reports from the children’s schools.

Generally, parents have a right to see the academic records of their children. The mother argued that if the father were able to exercise this right, it would increase the likelihood of his being able to ascertain where she and the children were, so he could try again to harm her and them. The court agreed that the risk itself was appreciable. Also, the psychological impact of the possibility that the school might inadvertently reveal their location on the mother and children was potentially highly damaging. Further, the court could see no benefit for the children to the father having access to their academic reports – in the circumstances, the children’s welfare did not demand it, even if the father wanted it.

The court said,

“85. By reason of his persistent desire to harm the mother the father has demonstrated himself incapable of discharging his parental responsibility to the sole end for which it was bequeathed to him, namely ensuring the welfare of his children.   To the contrary, the father has chosen to expose the children repeatedly to the risk of very serious physical and emotional harm. In these circumstances, I am satisfied that the need the children have for a father to be able to exercise his parental responsibility so as to remain involved in their lives must, in this exceptional case, give way to their need for continuing safety of the children and for the continuing safety of the mother who cares for them.”

On the surface, this is another blog on the theme of ‘bad things people do to each other during a break-up where the children are the collateral damage’. There seem to have been a few of these recently: we tell the tales because we are passionate about helping adults manage divorce better, and protecting children rather than putting them in the firing line. Thankfully, few cases are as extreme as this; but at a lower level, it is easy when involved in a horrible break-up to lose sight of the effects of adult behaviour on young minds. It’s not always easy to put one’s own battles aside and focus on the children, but nobody said parenting was simple: we all have to try.

If you’d like to discuss anything about parenting during a break-up or any other family matter, please do call Adam, Tricia, Sue, Simon or Gail on 01223 443333 to make an appointment.