When can parental responsibility be removed?

In November 2022, Parliament saw Mark Tami MP raise and debate the issue of curbing offenders’ parental responsibility for their children. This raises an interesting question of when and how parental responsibility can be terminated, particularly in the most tragic of circumstances.

The family of Jade Ward – who was killed by her estranged husband and the father of her four children in August 2021 – have been lobbying MPs to introduce a new law that would automatically suspend the rights of a parent found guilty of murdering the other parent.  Despite the offender receiving a life sentence, Jade’s family are concerned that his parental responsibility for their four children remains live and he needs to be consulted on decisions affecting them such as schooling, medical treatment and travel

Although it is possible, it is extremely rare for the court to remove parental responsibility from a parent.  Currently, the only way to do this is to make an application to the court. Successful applications are the exception and not the rule. The law is complex and different rules apply depending on how someone has acquired parental responsibility in the first place.  Legal advice from a specialist family lawyer is essential if you find yourself in this situation.

In Jade’s case, because she was married to her children’s father, his parental responsibility cannot be ended unless the children are adopted by someone else. There is no other way of ending his involvement. Understandably, this has caused Jade’s family – who are now looking after the children – great distress and upset because they need to consult him about things such as which school the children should go to and whether or not they can take the children on holidays abroad.

In this situation, the best the current law can do is limit the father’s parental responsibility.  Jade’s family could apply to the court for help in making decisions on a case-by-case basis; however, this could become onerous, time-consuming and expensive if they have to keep going back to court.  It is possible to ask the court to totally limit the father’s exercise of his parental responsibility.  This basically means the father would still have parental responsibility but it would have no effect.  However, under the current law, the onus is on Jade’s family to show why the father should have his parental responsibility limited.  Under the proposed Jade’s Law the father’s parental responsibility would automatically be suspended and it would be up to him to show the court that it shouldn’t be limited. 

There is an important difference between married fathers and unmarried fathers or second female parents.  The court can remove or end the parental responsibility of an unmarried father or second female parent by deciding whether or not that parent is able to exercise their rights in a way that benefits the child. 

We will have to wait and see if Jade’s Law will be introduced.  It is unlikely to be something that will happen quickly - if it does at all - and it is more likely that existing processes and procedures will be changed first to make things more streamlined and less stressful or burdensome for families finding themselves in this situation.

Update - May 2024

On 3 October 2023, in a move which took even campaigners for Jade’s Law by surprise, the Ministry of Justice announced that the Victims and Prisoners Bill would be amended so parents who kill a partner or ex-partner with whom they have children will automatically have their parental responsibility suspended when they are sentenced.  This new rule will apply to anyone convicted of the murder or voluntary manslaughter of a person with whom they share parental responsibility. A judge will be asked to review the suspension to check that it is in the best interests of the children. However, an automatic exemption would be put in place in cases where a domestic abuse victim kills their abuser.

When the General Election was announced on 22 May 2024, it was unclear what new legislation would manage to be passed before Parliament was dissolved just days later. One of the final pieces of legislation was the amended Victims and Prisoners Bill which included Jade’s Law. To prevent the bill from failing at the end of this Parliament, its remaining stages were fast-tracked and the bill received Royal Assent (i.e. became law) on 24 May 2024.  Although we don’t know when the new law comes into effect, we do know that it will not apply retrospectively.  

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