Parental responsibility

Get to know the principles of parental responsibility with our quick guide.

What is parental responsibility?

  • Parental responsibility means the legal rights and obligations that parents and guardians have for their child.
  • When the GMC refers to 'parents', it means those with parental responsibility for a child or young person.
  • This responsibility extends until the child reaches the age of 18 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and 16 in Scotland.

Who has parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility is not necessarily automatic for all parents.

A child's birth mother will usually have parental responsibility, as will married fathers or those named on the birth certificate.

Parental responsibility can also be held by adoptive parents, those appointed as a legal guardian or those given a residence order.

Additionally, when a child is subject to a care order, parental responsibility will be held by the local authority.

  • Parental responsibility may be acquired or awarded, and it may also be removed by a court order. Parental responsibility agreements are another way for step-parents and registered civil partners to acquire parental responsibility.
  • Divorce or marital separation does not affect parental responsibility. See our guide to children whose parents are separated for more.
  • If you need to confirm or are in doubt that someone has parental responsibility for a child, seek legal advice before proceeding.

When is parental responsibility relevant?

Parental responsibility can be an important factor in a number of situations involving the care and treatment of children or young people.

Treatment and consent

The GMC advises that all children should be involved as much as possible in decisions about their care and their views taken into account (0-18 years: guidance for all doctors).

If a child lacks the capacity to consent, you should ask for authority from their parent. See our separate guides on Gillick competence and consent and young patients.

Access to records

Situations involving parental access to a child's medical records need to be assessed on an individual basis. The child's competence can also be an issue in such situations (see below).

  • A person with parental responsibility may request access to their child’s records. If the child is competent to make their own disclosure decision, seek consent from the child before disclosing. If the child lacks competence for the decision, disclosure can be made, as long as it would not go against the best interests of the child. Read our guide on children whose parents have separated.
  • The situation may be different for online requests. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) suggests that parental proxy  access to a child's records should stop at age 11, and that ongoing access should be discussed both with the parents and the child. More detailed guidance can be found in the RCGP's online services guidance.
  • If requested, you may disclose information to the police or social services without consent from the child or from someone with parental authority if it is needed to safeguard a child. You may only disclose necessary information, and only on a need-to-know basis. 

Disputes between parents

It’s usually reasonable to rely on the authority of just one parent to provide treatment for a child who lacks competence to consent for themselves. But some types of treatment require the agreement of both parents (such as male circumcision for religious reasons).

If you know that one parent objects to a treatment  (for example, a vaccination), it is usually advisable to hold off and seek advice. Members can contact us to discuss.

Parents may not always agree on decisions involving their children, in which case you may be put in a difficult situation. In these cases:

  • it's normally appropriate to ask parents to resolve their disagreement.
  • if the parents cannot agree and the dispute cannot be resolved informally, you should seek legal advice about whether to apply for a court ruling.
  • the Department of Health's Reference guide to consent for examination or treatment addresses this sort of conflict.

This page was correct at publication on 11/08/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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