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Family Law


What is Parental Responsibility?
Parental responsibility is defined as all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his or her property. The following list sets out a number of the key roles involved when a person has parental responsibility for a child:Providing a home and maintaining and caring for the childDeciding on a name and religion for the childProviding for the child’s educationAgreeing to medical treatment

A mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth.
In Northern Ireland, if parents are married at the time of their child’s birth, they will each automatically have parental responsibility for that child.
A father who is not married to the mother of his child does not have parental responsibility, although there are a number of ways he can obtain it:

1.)    Firstly, he can marry the child’s mother (as long as he lives in Northern Ireland at the time of the marriage).

2.)    He can enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s mother. This will involve completing a form such as the one illustrated here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/1996/455/schedule/made

The agreement must be registered with the Office of Care and Protection in the Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast.

3.)    He can apply to the Court for a parental responsibility order. In deciding whether or not to grant the order the court will consider the degree of commitment shown by the father to the child, the degree of attachment between the two, and the father’s reasons for applying for the order. If the order is granted the father will have parental responsibility as if he was married to the child’s mother on the date that the child was born.

4.)    An unmarried father may also obtain parental responsibility for his child by jointly registering the birth of the child with the mother. This only applies to births jointly registered after 15th April 2002 however.

5.)    If the father obtains a residence order he will automatically be granted parental responsibility for this child.
When Can a Child’s Surname Be Changed?
A child’s name can only be changed on their birth certificate in order to correct a spelling mistake. The child can however be re-registered for two reasons:

1.)    In order to record the natural father’s details if they were left out at the time of first registering the child, or

2.)    If the parents of the child were unmarried at the time of birth and subsequently get married, the birth can be re-registered to reflect this.

In both these circumstances the child’s surname can be changed to either the father’s, the mother’s, or a combination of the two. If the child is less than 16 years of age both parents must consent to this name change. If the child is 16 or over then his or her written consent must be obtained in order for the name to be changed. A new name can be added to a birth certificate, for this to happen the new surname must be used for two years and evidence must be produced to prove this. The evidence may consist of school records, medical card etc. In order to add a new name to a birth certificate the consent of everyone with parental responsibility is required.In cases where it is not possible to change the child’s surname on the birth certificate the child’s surname can still be changed by applying for a Deed Poll. This allows the child to be legally known by a different name.If the child is under 16 then a person with parental responsibility must apply for a change of name by Deed Poll and all those with parental consent for the child must give their consent to the name change. The permission of the child is not necessary but if they object it is possible for them to apply for a court order preventing the name change.If the child is 16 or over they must apply for their own Deed Poll, and consent from those with parental responsibility is not required.
What is a Contact Order?
A Contact Order is one of a range of orders available to the Family Courts under Article 8 of the Children (NI) Order 1995.

If a child lives with one parent, a contact order may be necessary to allow the child to visit, stay with, or contact the other parent. This will be necessary if there is a disagreement between the parents about who the child should have contact with.

The child can make an application for a contact order if he wishes to have contact with the parent he does not live with, however he must first get permission from the court to make such an application.

The Court can also make an Order of Indirect Contact. This means the child will not meet the parent regularly but should keep in contact through letters. Similarly the Court may also make an Order of No Contact if it is in the child’s best interests not to have contact with a parent.

In some circumstances the court can make a Supervised Contact Order if it is in the child’s best interests to have someone present during the contact visit. This may be a relative or a social worker. The contact visits may also sometimes take place in Contact Centres. These are safe environments where children and parents can meet in the absence of another suitable location.

The following people may also make an application for a contact order:
  •     Any parent or guardian
  •     Step-parents
  •     A person with a residence order in force in respect of the child
  •     Any person who has lived with the child for at least three years
  •     If the child is in the care of a local HSC Trust, any person with the consent of that local HSC Trust.
  •     Any person who has the consent of each person with parental responsibility
If the person applying for leave to make an application for a contact order is the child concerned, the court will only grant the order if it is satisfied the child has sufficient understanding to make the proposed application.

If the person applying for leave to make an application for a contact order is not the child concerned, the court will have particular regard to the following:
  •     The nature of the proposed application for a contact order
  •     The applicant’s connection with the child
  •     Any risk there might be that the proposed application would cause disruption to the child’s life to the extent that it would cause him harm
  •     If the child is being looked after by an authority, the court will also consider the authority’s plans for the child’s future and the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents.
The general principle is that the court should not make an order ‘unless it considers that doing so would be better for the child than making no order at all’. The welfare of the child is paramount and us such the court will consider the following when deciding whether or not to make any order under article 8 of the Children Order:
  •     The wishes and feelings of the child
  •     His physical, emotional and educational needs
  •     The likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances
  •     His age, sex and background
  •     Any harm which he has suffered, or is at risk of suffering in the future
  •     How capable each of his parents are of meeting his needs
A contact order ceases to have effect if the parents subsequently live together for a continuous period of 6 months or more. Any contact order will also cease to have effect when the child reaches the age of 16, unless the court is satisfied that there are exceptional circumstances in the case.

If the parent with whom the child lives refuses to allow contact with the other parent to take place, and therefore breaches the order, the parent who has been deprived of contact can apply for contempt proceedings to be brought against the first parent.
What is a Residence Order?
If parents cannot agree who their child should live with, they can apply to a court for a residence order. A residence order is an order settling the arrangements to be made as to the person with whom a child is to live.

The child can make an application for a residence order, but only in exceptional circumstances and if he proves that he has sufficient understanding.

The following people may also make an application for a residence order:
  •     Any parent or guardian
  •     Step-parents
  •     A person with a residence order in force in respect of the child
  •     Any person who has lived with the child for at least three years
  •     If the child is in the care of a local authority, any person with the consent of that local authority
  •     Any person who has the consent of each person with parental responsibility
A residence order can be granted to more than one person whether they live together or not. Therefore it can state that a child is to live with one parent part of the time, and the other parent at other times.

A residence order will prevent anyone from removing the child from the UK for longer than one month unless they have the consent of everyone with parental responsibility for that child. It will also prevent anyone from changing the surname of that child.

The general principle is that the court should not make an order ‘unless it considers that doing so would be better for the child than making no order at all’. The welfare of the child is paramount and us such the court will consider the following when deciding whether or not to make any order under article 8 of the Children Order:
  •     The wishes and feelings of the child
  •     His physical, emotional and educational needs
  •     The likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances
  •     His age, sex and background
  •     Any harm which he has suffered, or is at risk of suffering in the future
  •     How capable each of his parents are of meeting his needs
A residence order will cease to have effect when the child reaches the age of 16 unless there are exceptional circumstances.
When can a child be taken into care by a local HSC Trust?
A child can be taken into care by the local Health and Social Care Trust if a court makes a Care Order. These orders allow the HSC Trust to intervene in family life where a child is suffering, or is at risk of suffering significant harm. This harm must be attributable to an unreasonable level of care or to the child being beyond parental control.

A Care Order places the child in the care of the HSC Trust and gives the Trust parental responsibility for the child. The Trust can decide the extent to which the parents continue to exercise parental responsibility. The Order will last until the child turns 18, but can be ended by being discharged, by the child being adopted, or by the making of a residence order.

The child, the HSCTrust, the parents, or anyone else with parental responsibility may apply to the court to discharge the order.While in the care of a Trust a child will have a number of rights. They can have an independent visitor appointed who can come and visit and talk to them. They also have the right to legal advice. They have the right to maintain contact with their family and friends as long as it is in their best interests. A Care Plan should also be made and reviewed regularly, initially within the first two weeks and then again no more than three months later. After that they should be reviewed every six months. The child has the right to have his wishes and feelings expressed at these review meetings and to be informed of the main points of discussion.
At what age can a child be left at home alone?
There is no minimum age at which children in the United Kingdom can be left at home alone. The NSPCC have recommended that children around the age of 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time. They also suggest that children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight. Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.

While there is no legal minimum age for leaving a child unsupervised, it is an offence to do so if it places them at risk.
What age should a babysitter be?
In Northern Ireland there is no minimum age for babysitting. The NSPCC however recommends that parents should try to find a babysitter who is 16 or over. If a child comes to any harm while someone below the age of 16 is looking after him, the parents of the child may be held responsible. Parents should be sure that the babysitter they are relying on is mature enough to look after their child, even if they are 16 or over.

The DHSSPS have issued guidance for parents and this can be viewed at the following link: http://www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/sph_english.pdf

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127-131 Ormeau Road,
Belfast,
BT7 1SH

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