Amending the Register

I’ve been meaning to make a short post about registration of births since going through the process myself with our newborn. Today it is reported that the arrangements are going to change. For myself and the other half registration of his name as father on the certificate is automatic since we are married, but for unmarried parents this is not the case and whether or not the father appears on the certificate will be in the hands of the mother.

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Since 2003 the inclusion of a father’s name on the birth certificate is effective to grant him parental responsibility, and his absence will mean that he must either obtain the mother’s consent or apply to the court for parental responsibility. Often of course the main reason that a mother has failed to name the father on the birth certificate is precisely because she does not want him to play a part in the child’s life, including through parental responsibility and so more often than not the father will have to take the more litigious route. 

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The flip side of the coin is that inclusion on the birth certificate also triggers financial responsibilities to pay child support.

 

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However under the new proposals there will apparently be an element of compulsion applied to both parents: upon the mother to identify the father and for the father to sign the register. This is likely to have several ramifications as far as I can tell (assuming the requirements to identify and to sign are complied with):

  • the grant of parental responsibility will go hand in hand with the responsiility to maintain financially – either both will apply or neither.
  • mothers who wish to obtain child support will be unable (theoretically) to avoid the grant of PR by leaving the certificate blank. .

It is unclear how these requirements will be enforced. If a mother is determined not to identify the father or a father is determined not to sign – will the threat of a fine really make a difference? And according to The Times a sole registration will take place where obtaining the fathers details would be ‘impossible, impractical or unreasonable’ – including cases of genuinely unknown fathers or cases of abuse (does this mean in cases of children who were conceived by rape or is it more wide?). That is all well and good but doesn’t this provide a gaping loophole through which any mother who wants to can skip, and that renders the whole reform a waste of time? 

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I wonder how all this will work in practice? A birth certificate is a pre-requisite to an application for child benefit so whilst the registrar is messing about trying to locate the errant father so that she can finally issue a birth certificate – the child benefit payments are delayed. Of course all these things can be ironed out no doubt but this is just one of several ways in which this is a dumber and more complicated idea than it perhaps first appears.  

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And even if it is successful in its own terms – labelling parents as such and giving them theoretical responsibilities, what this law reform plainly will not change is the inability of the child support system to get blood out of a stone, or the difficulties in transforming the tage ‘parental responsibility’ into the ability to play a meaningful part in a child’s life in cases of implacable hostility. An ‘end to fatherless children’ as touted in The Times? I don’t think that’s very likely.