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When parents separate a father can find that he often has reduced contact, or even no contact, with his children.

What can be done in this situation?

Well, in this guide I'm going to talk you through all of your rights as a father in the UK, including:

  • What rights do I have to see my children?
  • How do I prevent the mother withholding access?
  • What if I want the children to live with me?

And more.

Let's dive in...

What Are A Father's Rights To See Their Child In The UK?

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon after a couple separates for the mother to prevent a father seeing their child.

While it can take some time to re-establish contact (possibly through the courts), rest assured- a father in the UK has the same rights to see his children as the mother.

Fathers rights UK infographic

The only reason a father can be legally prevented from seeing his children is if he poses them some sort or risk of physical or psychological harm (more on that later).

Arguments between the parents about matters such as child support payments, or living arrangements never constitute a valid reason for a mother withholding contact.

However, the right of contact can be affected by the father's parental status.

Therefore, the first question to answer is- does the father have parental responsibility for the child?

What Is Parental Responsibility, And How Does It Affect Your Right To See Your Child?

Parental Responsibility (PR) is a specific legal status.

If you have PR you enjoy both rights, and responsibilities, in relation to the child.

Your responsibilities include:

  • Looking after the child’s well-being.
  •  Ensuring that the child receives enough support and a healthy environment to grow up in.
  • Naming or changing their child's name.
  • Providing financially for the child.

PR is usually associated with the child's parents, but can sometimes be granted by the court to other individuals via a parental responsibility order, such as a grandparent or adoptive parent.

Alongside parental responsibilities, PR also grants you rights- such as having contact with the child and being entitled to make decisions about their upbringing, including things like:

  • Where a child goes to school.
  • What religion the child may or may not be brought up in.
  • Healthcare decisions and medical treatment.
  • Permission for trips and other activities.

<bloglink>Parental responsibility<bloglink> lasts until a child reaches the legal age of 18, and a mother always has PR for a child from the moment they are born.

For the father, the situation is a bit more complex, and depends largely on whether or not you were married at the time your child was born...

Parental Rights For Married Fathers

Marriage gives both partners in the relationship equal rights and shared custody over their children. All fathers in the UK who are married to their child’s mother automatically have parental responsibility from the birth of the child (whether or not the father was named on the birth certificate). Even if you later <bloglink>divorce<bloglink>, the father keeps his PR status.

Parental Rights For Unmarried Fathers

Fathers who were not married to the mother when the child was born do not automatically assume parental responsibility.

However, there is an exception. Even if you were not married at the time of birth, if, nevertheless, you are named on the child's birth certificate- then you have PR.

If you are unsure whether you were ever named on the birth certificate, you can order a replacement copy <bloglink>here.<bloglink>

A birth certificate
If you were named on the birth certificate as the father you will have PR, even if you weren't married at the time.

For fathers who were not married at the time of birth, and not named on the birth certificate- you will need either to be added to the birth certificate, or enter a written parental responsibility agreement (both of which require the mother to agree). If the mother does not agree, then you will need to apply to the court to obtain parental responsibility via a court order.

Before granting parental responsibility to an unmarried father who was not on the birth certificate, the court will consider factors such as:

  • The level of commitment.
  • The attachment between the child and father.
  • Employment and financial history of the father.

Once you have established that whether you have PR, you can then take steps to ensure you are granted your legal rights as a father.

A Father’s Rights To See His Child

While it is very common following a divorce or separation for the mother to have custody of the children, with the father having regular contact- there is noting in law stipulating that this must be the case.

In fact, it is increasingly common for fathers to seek primary custody of the children.

There are two types of possible arrangement:

  1. The child lives with one parent (whether the mother or father), and spends time with (ie. has regular contact with) the other parent.
  2. The child lives with both parents, shared equally (aka 'co-parenting' or 'shared custody')

The main difference is the amount of time spent with either parent. There is no advantage to being the main parent that the child lives with, other than not having to seek the permission of the other parent to take the child abroad for up to 28 days (holidays or periods longer than this will still need consent).

For all other matters, both parents' consent is needed for any major decisions about the child- such as what school they should go to, medical treatment, etc- regardless of whether the child lives with one main carer, or whether you are co-parenting.

Pros and Cons of Shared Parenting



Equal responsibility for both parties. Both mother and father get to avoid parental burnout by dividing their duties.

Larger risk of conflict and disagreements, especially if both parties cannot maintain healthy communication.

Children develop a sense of consistency with both parents in their lives.

Some children might find it difficult to switch between two different households with different sets of rules.

Children feel less stressed about not living with both parents when they have equal involvement in their lives.

Many children find it hard to spend time away from a parent that they are more attached to - be it mother or father.

Ideally, the two parties will reach a mutual agreement about whether the child lives with one parent, or both parents, and in terms of visiting frequency. Prompt legal advice can help both parties come to a reasonable compromise.

Sometimes though, reaching an agreement is not that easy. In cases like this there are steps you can take to play a greater role in your children’s lives. The law prefers for a child to have meaningful relationships with both of their parents wherever possible.

Sometimes, if you aren't able to work things out on your own an agreement can still be reached through a proposal sent by your family law solicitor. In other cases the two parties can sit down with a third party neutral <bloglink>mediator<bloglink> to decide what's in the best interests of the child and when either of you should see the children.

Child Arrangement Orders - Everything You Need to Know

If the two parents cannot come to an agreement then the parent seeking more contact or custody (often the father) has the option to apply to the court for a <bloglink>child arrangements order<bloglink>. This order can determine:

  • Who your child will live with.
  • When your child gets to spend time with each parent.
  • Under what conditions your child spends time with either parent.
  • What forms of contact either parents can use and how frequently.

Every case is different and is dealt with by the court after a thorough consideration of the all circumstances. The court will consider arguments and evidence presented by both parents, and come to a decision that the it feels is in the best interests of the children. The court will consider the list of factors in <bloglink>the Children Act 1989<bloglink> when deciding what is in the best interests for the welfare of the child, and when determining what rights a father has regarding child contact.

A father reads to his son

When Can A Mother Stop A Father From Seeing His Child?

UK law states that a father with parental responsibility has the right to an adequate amount of <bloglink>access to his children’s lives<bloglink>, even if their primary caretaker is the mother.

Therefore, legally, a mother cannot stop the father of the children from having access without a valid reason.

What constitutes a valid reason?

It has to be something that puts the child’s physical or psychological well-being is at risk. These situations can include:

  • The child being exposed to criminal activity.
  • Exposure to abuse or neglect.
  • The father engaging in drug or substance abuse.
  • Exposure to violence.

In the absence of such factors, UK law places an emphasis on shared parenting. Because every family is different, reasonable access for a father looks different in every situation.

What's clear is that factors that don't put the child at risk of harm should not be used by a mother to withhold contact. Common reasons that are often wrongly used deny access include:

  • Disputes about child maintenance payments.
  • The father having been late for pick up or drop offs.
  • The father has not had regular contact so far.
  • The parents argue or don't get along.

While it's clear the mother should not withdraw access on a whim, often the reality is that they can prevent reasonable access happening because the child lives with them.

If this is the case (and any attempts to negotiate or reason with your ex-spouse have failed) then you may need to seek legal assistance to re-establish contact.

But rest assured, every father with PR has the primary right to see his children and develop a healthy relationship with them; and the courts will seek to support this outcome, unless there is a clear risk to the child.  It might just take a bit of time.

What Is 'Reasonable Access'?

Going back to the term ‘reasonable access’ for a moment, the idea is unfortunately often vague in many situations.

There may be situations where some access is granted, but not as much or as consistently as you'd like. Is this 'reasonable access'?

The truth is that there is no definitive answer to what qualifies as reasonable access that a father should have to his children. For some people reasonable access might be seeing their child every day. For others, it can be less frequent. It varies on a case-to-case basis.

But contact is not just about quantity, but also quality. Reasonable access also means:

  • The right to spend time with your child on designated days and times (ie. consistency).
  • To spend time with your without any interference.
  • To be involved in your child’s life and activities (such as parent's evenings and sports events).
  • To spend time with your child without the supervision of the other parent.
  • To get a fair share of special events, such as birthdays and Christmas.

In some cases you might want to split childcare by alternating weeks, weekends, holidays and trips. In other cases, a parent might only see their child for short visits. Assess your situation and decide what is the best-case scenario for your child. 

And while reaching agreement with the child's mother by yourself (or possibly with the help of solicitors or a mediator) is always the best option- if this isn't possible, then an application to the courts for a child arrangements order can be made.

A father plays ball with his infant son

Can The Child Influence Fathers Rights?

If things are acrimonious between you and your ex-partner, it can be easy to get caught up in that conflict and forget that there is a child in the middle, who may have their own views.

In fact, depending of the age of the child, their thoughts and wishes are something a court can take into account when deciding what is best for them.  

What Happens If A Child Does Not Wish To See Their Father?

Once a child reaches the age of about 12 or 13 the court will start to consider their views before deciding the terms of access (they can take into account the views of a younger child, but tend to place much less weight on them, as the child is too young to fully understand what is being asked).

Once a child turns 16 they have the right to decide for themselves which parent they live with (unless a court specifically rules otherwise).

If an older child has very strong views that they do not want to see their father, this is a factor that the court could take into account when deciding whether contact should be reduced or even ceased all together.

The court will consider whether or not the child's concerns are based on a justified reason or not. If they are, it is then up to the parent concerned to identify why the child feels a certain way and what could possibly be done to overcome this, and build a stronger bond with them. If the court sees progress, they may restart or increase contact again.

The courts are likely to step in if they notice a child distancing themselves from the father due to the influence of the mother. This is known as parental alienation and in this case, legal representatives try to work out a solution that is in the best interest of the child, and the court is likely to give stern directions to the mother to modify their behaviour.

Key takeaway: Work on building a strong relationship with your child, irrespective of your dynamic with the other parent. 

Can A Father Lose Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility - once gained - is rarely ever taken away. Only in extreme cases will a father lose his rights to PR over his child.  For example, a father being convicted of a crime and sentence to imprisonment would still be unlikely to result in them losing PR status, unless that crime specifically put the child at risk of serious harm in some way.

The Absent Father And Parental Rights

An absent parent can be defined as a parent who does not have custody of the child and is not involved in any part of the child’s life.  Absenteeism in parenting does not result in the loss of parental rights. A father who has parental responsibility will keep it unless there is a specific court order removing it (which is exceedingly rare), regardless of how infrequently he spends time with his child, or even if he has no contact at all.

Therefore, there is set amount of time after which a father forfeits parental responsibility.

An absent father looks out the window

What Rights Does A Stepfather Have In The UK?

Stepfamilies are a common occurrence in the UK, so it’s not uncommon for stepfathers to develop close relationships with their spouse’s children. Legally, a step-parent has no rights over their stepchild, not even in terms of signing permission forms for schools and hospitals.

The only way for a stepfather to acquire rights over his stepchild is to apply for stepparent parental responsibility, which can be done in the following circumstances:

  • When the court sees it fit for the child to live with the step-parent under a child arrangements order.
  • When the step-parent adopts the child.
  • When the biological parent agrees in writing to give parental responsibility to the stepfather.

Once a stepfather has acquired parental responsibility he has the same duties, responsibilities and rights over the children as a biological parent.


Do fathers have the same rights as mothers in the UK?

The general rule in the UK is for a child to have access to both parents, provided that it is safe for them to do so. Both the mother and father (provided he has parental responsibility) have equal rights and responsibilities over their children; including their upbringing, food, shelter, education, religion, health, etc.  

What rights does a father have after separation or divorce?

When a father is married to the mother of his children, or named on their birth certificates, both parents have shared responsibilities and equal access to the child, including legal and physical custody.

Parental responsibility is not lost by the father in the case of a <bloglink>divorce or separation<bloglink> and, ideally, the two parties should reach a mutual decision on co-parenting or contact, in the child’s best interests.

Can a father deny a mother access?

This situation here is exactly the same for mothers as it is for fathers. A father should not stop a mother's access to her children, unless doing so would but them at a clear risk of physical or emotional harm. If you have concerns about child safety, you may instead need a <bloglink>specific issue order<bloglink> or a <bloglink>prohibited steps order.<bloglink>

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Neil Johnstone is a barrister and the founder of Neil is a barrister with an interest in all forms of civil and family law, and has appeared at all Court levels, up to and including the Court of Appeal.

Neil started this site in response to a common problem he noticed: Clients were unable to pursue deserving cases due to a lack of up-front funds. Neil knew that better access to No-Win-No-Fee representation and legal funding could help bridge the gap, and so founded; a unique comparison site connecting clients, law firms, and specialist funders.

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