Lockdown babies and the impact of COVID-19 on parental rights
When the country went into lockdown on 23 March there was an abrupt halt on all the usual functions of society, including the suspension of all birth registrations. With registration offices closed, new parents were unable to register the birth of their child as this is something which must be done in person and not online. By law a child must be registered within 42 days of its birth but in some cases this has not been possible due to COVID-19.
Now that registration offices are opening up and re-starting their processes, they are dealing with a backlog of registrations into the hundreds of thousands. In Suffolk, appointments for the registration of births are currently being dealt with for babies born up to and including 31 May 2020. In Essex, registration offices are encouraging parents not to make an application for registration at this time if their child was born after 30 May 2020. This leaves a gap in registration for babies born after these dates, and the applications which are being made, are being delayed because of the backlog.
Until the baby’s birth is registered, it does not legally “exist” and this may impact on entitlements to benefits including Child Benefit. The rights of unmarried fathers are also impacted because until the birth is registered, and the father is named on the birth certificate, these fathers will not have the legal right to make decisions on behalf of their child. This can include the right to consent to the medical treatment of the child; to determine where it should live or the school it should attend; or even its name. All of these rights and duties are known as having Parental Responsibility (PR) for a child.
When both parents have parental responsibility neither parent has greater rights over the child than the other. PR can be “exercised” jointly (together) or separately. The bigger the decision, the more a court would expect the decision to be taken by both parties together. Parental responsibility is obtained automatically by the mother but only a married father has this same automatic right. Otherwise, he can gain PR by being named on the child’s birth certificate, or by way of an agreement lodged with the court, or by an application to the court for a Parental Responsibility Order. To be named on the birth certificate, an unmarried husband must also attend at the registrar’s office to give formal consent to being named. This is also posing difficulties with some registry offices having restrictions on the number of people who can attend appointments. It is an issue which is not going to go away anytime soon and might require a change in the law for unmarried fathers. However, this is unlikely given the government has other priorities.
For anyone who is unsure of their rights and responsibilities as a parent or is having difficulties with their partner over the arrangements for their children, speak to one of our family solicitors in confidence to get guidance on the options available to deal with the issue at hand.
Amanda Erskine is a solicitor in the Family department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Ipswich.