When court and classroom meet

As a new school year gets underway, teachers and management staff may unwittingly find themselves involved in disputes between separated parents.

In a perfect world, court and classroom would only meet in a careers’ presentation. However, with 25% of all families with children being single parent families, and a significant number of children living with one of their parents and their new partner, it is inevitable that issues surrounding parental separation are going to impact on children and young adults in the school environment, just as any other anxieties or tensions at home will.

As a new school year gets underway, teachers and management staff may unwittingly find themselves involved in disputes between separated parents.

  • What if one parent agrees to a vaccination or attendance at a religious service and the other does not?
  • What if a mother or father that has never been involved in taking or collecting a child from school before turns up early explaining they need to take the child to an appointment?
  • What if one parent indicates the other should not be invited to parents’ evenings?
  • What if a parent requests their children are known by a different surname to the one they where registered with?
  • What if one parent expressly says the other parent should not be allowed to take the children off the school premises?

Are there any decisions which require the consent of both parents, rather than just one? What is CAFCASS and in what circumstances may the organisation contact the school? These are put a few of the situations where schools can find themselves being expected to adjudicate in parental disputes.

A key piece of information for a school to have when developing a policy on managing parental disputes, is who has parental responsibility for every child in the school’s care. 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 property’. Each person with parental responsibility has an equal say in relation to all the fundamental issues concerning that child. Even if that child spends most of their time with one parent, the say remains equal unless there is a court order limiting one parent’s ability to exercise the responsibility.

Both parents need to agree which school a child should attend. If parents disagree as to whether a child should, for example, be able to attend religious services at school, both need to reach a joint decision or seek that a court makes an order. Agreement or a court order is similarly needed to change a child’s name. For school trips abroad, both parents with parental responsibility must agree and it would be advisable to have both parents sign such a consent form. If a parent with parental responsibility arrives to collect a child, a school cannot refuse to allow the child into their care unless it has grave concerns about the child’s welfare based on the behaviour or the school’s knowledge of the parent, or has sight of a court order confirming that parent is not allowed to collect the child. Schools should be aware that court orders relating to children are private to the proceedings. If a parent wishes to give a school a copy of a court order then the parent should be encouraged to speak to their solicitor about obtaining the court’s leave for a copy of the order to be provided to the school. Information about a child’s progress should be provided to both parents if they both have parental responsibility.

So how does the school know who has parental responsibility when it comes to weigh up which parent’s requests to comply with? Below is a list and guide regarding the different people a school may interact on a day to day basis:

  • Mother – a child’s biological Mother automatically has parental responsibility and would only lose it if the child is formally adopted. Her ability to have a say in the fundamental decisions affecting her child would only be limited if a care order was made in respect of a child or a special guardian was appointed (this is a ‘halfway house’ adoption), in which case the special guardian can exercise parental responsibility unilaterally.
  • Father – the biological father has parental responsibility for a child if:
    • He was married to the child’s mother at the time of the birth, or subsequently marries her
    • In respect of children born after 1 December 2003 is named on that child’s birth certificate
    • The birth of the child is re-registered to reflect he is the father (requires Mother’s consent)
    • He enters into a parental responsibility agreement with the Mother. This involves completing a simple form and both parents attending the court counter in a local county court or magistrates’ court, signing the agreement in the presence of the appropriate official.
  • Same sex wife or civil partner of mother – has parental responsibility if married or in a partnership with mother at the time of the placing of the embryo or of the artificial insemination.
  • Step parent – Step parents do not automatically acquire parental responsibility but they can gain it either by entering into a formal parental responsibility agreement (requiring the consent and co-operation of everyone with PR) or by obtaining a court order.
  • Grandparent – same as step parents and this scenario only likely to arise if the grandparents are providing the day to day care for the children and would, as a father or a step parent or a guardian automatically gain parental responsibility if they are granted a residence order in their favour.
  • Guardian – a guardian acquires parental responsibility on the death of everyone with PR, or if appointed by a person with a residence order in their favour on the death of that individual.
  • Foster parent – No automatic parental responsibility, which remains with the Local Authority in this situation.
  • Local authority Gains parental responsibility on the making of a care order. However, under a supervision order responsibility remains with the parents.

A top tip for schools and teachers is getting as much information as possible early on. Requesting a copy of a child’s birth certificate with the completed registration form as well as requesting the parents’ relationship to each other (married/civil partners, unmarried, divorced, separated) will assist, as well as asking the question who has parental responsibility for the child being registered. If the child has two parents, ensure both sign the registration form.

Staff are likely to have to make decisions under pressure and seeking specialist family law advice would provide practical support when managing the escalating tensions between parents and shielding pupils from the same.

Lottie Tyler is an Associate in the family law team

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