This article was first published in Gallery magazine.
Once upon a time there was a family. There was a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. Dad went out to work. Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.
Then came the Modern Family. Just like the witty US television show of the same name, the Modern Family is one that many of us will recognise as closer to our own. Whether that is a family where both parents work and both look after the children; where there is a mum and a mum or a dad and a dad; half-siblings and step-siblings; or parents who are not married or not in a civil partnership but who have children together. Family means whatever we want it to mean.
The law has not been quite so quick to move with the times. Slowly it is catching up and recent developments have been very welcome in recognising that we do not live in a cookie-cutter world.
A significant development came in December 2016, when the law changed to allow an unmarried father to automatically acquire parental responsibility (PR) for his child, as long as he was named on the child’s birth certificate. A married father, by contrast, has always automatically had PR.
This was a huge shift from the previous position where an unmarried father could only acquire PR if the child’s mother agreed or if a court ordered it. For some unmarried fathers this required an application to court and there sometimes followed difficult and stressful – not to mention potentially costly – proceedings. All that to be recognised in law as your own child’s father and to have an equal say with the child’s mother on important decisions concerning your child’s upbringing. The change in the law was hailed by many as a step in the right direction.
A recent and very important development came in April 2021 when it was announced that the law will be changed to, in essence, reflect the Modern Family. Significant changes include the ability for same-sex parents to both be registered as parents on a child’s birth certificate and to automatically confer PR, as far as possible. Opposite-sex civil partners are also to be given the same legal parent status and PR as a married couple. A step-parent can also acquire PR by agreement. The amendments extend further but those are particularly important in demonstrating that the law will now reflect reality.
Before this time, the only way for both parents in a same-sex union to jointly hold PR was for the court to make a joint residence order. Something as simple as being able to sign an official form for the child was not possible for the non-birth parent as that parent did not, and could not, have PR absent a residence order.
It seems astonishing that in these modern times that has been the position and people have been required to go through that process – until now.
It is essential that everyone is treated equally, in day to day life and by the law.