Family law and the Archers

Parental responsibility law means Helen’s nightmare continues

As if things aren’t bad enough for The Archers’ Helen Titchener.  Not only is she on remand and facing charges for attempted murder and wounding with intent, she now has to come to terms with the fact that the man that has abused her and pushed her to her limits has been discharged from hospital and now has control of her son, the only witness to the incident between them.

During the latest episodes of the long-running BBC Radio 4 soap opera, audiences heard Henry’s maternal grandparents Pat and Tony seek legal advice on how to gain custody of Henry, who is not Rob’s biological son.

While this may seem like a straightforward request, considering that Rob is not Henry’s father as well as the fact that Henry witnessed Rob abusing his mother, in fact there are laws in place which favour those deemed to have parental responsibility.

The grandparents are told that they will need to make an application to the Court to secure Henry’s return to their care. After hearing submissions from legal representatives the Court decides that Henry should remain in the care of his father until the Court has had the opportunity of considering matters further, while his grandparents will be allowed to see Henry once a week.

The reason given for this decision is that Helen gave Rob parental responsibility, which is what this case now rests upon.

Parental responsibility is a legal term which encompasses all of the rights, duties and obligations that a person, usually a parent, has in respect of a child.  Historically unmarried fathers did not receive parental responsibility automatically and had to enter into an agreement with the child’s mother, marry the child’s mother or apply for an order of the Court.

However for children born since December 2013, if their parents are unmarried but their father’s name appears on their birth certificate he will automatically acquire parental responsibility.  If he is not named as father on the birth certificate the previously mentioned methods are still available to him.

How then has Rob acquired these rights as he is not Henry’s natural father?  There are several ways that this could occur.  The first is for Rob to have adopted Henry which gives him the same legal status as a birth parent.  The second is that by virtue of his marriage to Helen they were able to apply for something called step-parent parental responsibility. The third is that a party who is not a birth parent can acquire parental responsibility if they obtain an order from the Court that a child should live with them (previously known as a residence order).

As grandparents, despite the fact that they have been heavily involved with Henry, helping out with child care and in his early years providing a home for him and Helen, they do not have any automatic rights in relation to him.  They would have needed the Court’s permission to even make the application seeking Henry’s return to their care.

As this was an emergency situation the Court would not have had the time to gather any independent evidence to assist with its decision making process.  The presumption would always be that a child should be with a parent rather than, say a grandparent or other family member. If Henry has been adopted by Rob then he is a parent and unless the Court is provided with evidence that placing Henry with Rob will mean that he is at risk of harm then there is no reason why Henry would not be placed there.  At present this evidence is not before the Court.

All is not lost for Helen and her parents though. Usually in cases such as this, the Court would be assisted by an organisation called Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service.

They would meet all of the parties, including Helen, and prepare a report outlining what they believe to be in Henry’s interest long term.  One of the facts that would be important for Cafcass and the Court to consider would be the impact on Henry of the domestic violence that he had witnessed and whether he is safe with Rob, both physically and emotionally. The Court will consider the applications in light of the report from Cafcass.

Obviously at this stage it is not known whether Helen will be convicted but if she is Henry and his grandparents will face a long road of legal proceedings before they can live together happily ever after.