Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Unmarried fathers - are we ending discrimination at last ?

Peter Townsend, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Teesside
Arthur Baker, Lecturer in Social Policy, Barnsley College
Justice of the Peace (1998) 162 (13) p 236-8


Family policies must increasingly consider the parenting roles of both men and women and ensure equitable treatment. What unites the two camps in this debate is that they both justify their stance as being necessary to promote the welfare of the children involved. However, there is now considerable research to indicate the importance of biological fathers maintaining strong parental links with their children (see for example Lamb M E Fatherhood & Family Policy, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1983 ). A mother should no longer have, in effect, a power of veto over the distribution of parental responsibility to unmarried fathers. The time is long overdue in bringing about legislative change in keeping with the overall philosophy of the Children Act 1989 and emerging thinking on gender equality.

The mechanism for bringing about a change, however, may prove to be a thorny issue and accordingly may be more problematic. The law however, needs to address the general issue here, that is, of a heterogeneous group of fathers, many of whom having been in a stable and non-violent cohabitation with the mother before it failed. It is right that the concerns of a small number of vulnerable women should be addressed, but not at the cost of a blanket approach to all unmarried fathers. The granting of automatic parental responsibility to all fathers would be a welcome move, subject to court action to remove this in a very small number of cases.

If unmarried fathers are ultimately successful in gaining automatic parental responsibility this will be a welcome development . However, it does not necessarily mean the end of discrimination .The issue must be set in a broader context of an ongoing debate about the respective roles of men, women, fathers and mothers.

Last updated - 12 May 1998

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