Unmarried fathers who fail to secure legal rights and responsibility over 'illegitimate' children could, at the mother's whim, forfeit all access to them. Gavin Evans reports
When Brett arrived to take his son to the zoo, he was in for a bit of a shock. "Adam's going to be his daddy from now on," his former partner announced, "so you can just f*** off."

That was two years ago, and since then the life of this 33-year-old Colchester machinist has been a perpetual, and so far futile, attempt to fight for the right to share in eight-year-old Jason's life. His eyes display hints of desperation, but mainly one sees throat-choking sadness.

Tracy and Brett "got it together" soon after her marriage broke up. She was wary of anything matrimonial and he favoured cohabitation, an arrangement they saw no reason to change after Jason was born. But things gradually broke down and after seven years together they agreed to part. He continued to see Jason twice a week, paid maintenance and served on the school Parent-Teacher Association.

"I thought things would continue like that for ever," he said with a self-deprecating shrug. "I just assumed that because my name was on the birth certificate, everything was fine."

He was wrong. In fact, his entire status as a father was now subject to the whims of his estranged lover. As he was soon to discover, without a Parental Rights and Responsibility (PRR) order, he could be cut out of his children's lives.

During the past six years, British law has made significant advances in terms of the "rights" of unmarried fathers. Section 4 of the 1989 Children's Act states that the father can be granted a PRR order - if it is in the best interests of the child, and the father has shown evidence of his commitment - placing him in the same position as a divorced father. This can either be secured through both partners voluntarily signing the papers, or through the courts.

So far, however, fewer than 2 per cent of Britain's rapidly growing number of unmarried fathers have taken this option. Though they may not know it, the rest are living on extremely precarious legal ground.

For a start, if the father's name is not on his child's birth certificate, the mother may deny his paternity, forcing him into a lengthy legal battle to compel blood tests. Far more common is for the mother to change the children's surname, or to cut the father out by not informing him of major changes to their lives. The children can be put up for adoption or into care without his consent, and they have no rights to his estate if he dies without a will. The family can emigrate without consulting him.

As the predicament of Coronation Street's unmarried dad, Ken Barlow, has highlighted, this situation is hardly an esoteric one. In 1991, 6 per cent of Britain's 11.5 million children under the age of 16 lived with cohabiting, unmarried parents (treble the figure for 1981), while a further 5 per cent had single, unmarried mothers. Researchers at London's Family Policy centre say that these percentages are increasing rapidly while counsellors from the dad's support organisation Families Need Fathers say that last year 3,500 unmarried men come to them for advice on how to restore contact with their children.

If discussions with well-heeled and well-educated cohabitees are anything to go by, even those who have consciously chosen to have children outside of wedlock tend to be ignorant of the precariousness of their position.

Karen and Alex, both successful television producers in their mid-thirties, decided against marriage because, as she put it, "we saw no good reason to. We're not religious and we were uncomfortable with the historical baggage - of husbands owning wives." The only drawback they considered was the tax implications if one of them died: everything over pounds 150,000 is slapped with a 40 per cent tax but could pass tax-free to the other partner if they were married.

Six years and three children on they remain convinced of their position, despite opposition from his Catholic parents and "occasional spots of embarrassment with builders and bank clerks who think we're married". But it was only when first being interviewed for this story last month that they learnt their situation was rather less secure than they had assumed.

"We'd always believed that rights equal to marriage automatically followed if the father signed the birth certificate, and when I've discussed this with several friends in the same situation, they had similar misconceptions," said Karen. "I was astounded when I discovered that because Alex hasn't yet drawn up a will, if he died the children wouldn't inherit, and he was pretty shocked when he found out that if our relationship broke down, I could take the children to America, where my parents live, and he probably wouldn't be able to stop me - not that I'd ever do such a thing." Just to be on the safe side, they went to court last week to sign a PRR order.

For those who miss this legal option before it is too late, the results can be extremely painful. In Brett's case, after a year of relatively amicable separation, Tracy decided it would be in Jason's interest for her new boyfriend, Adam, to be the sole father figure. Brett represented himself in court but was unaware he needed to apply for an interim contact order at the first hearing. Usually, PRR cases are decided within six months, but because of a delay in the welfare officer's report, over a year lapsed before any decision was made. "In that time I only had one, 15-minute visit when Jason told me, 'Daddy, I'm missing you'."

The judge recommended six months of mediation, during which Brett had monthly contact with his son. "The first few visits went wonderfully, but last week, out of the blue, he said he didn't want to see me because I was upsetting his mum by taking her to court. I've just learnt they have applied for Adam to adopt him."

Having been denied legal aid because his pounds 5 an hour salary was deemed too high to qualify, he is now being assisted in preparing for his final PRR hearing by a close friend, Tony, a 27-year-old civil servant who also had a protracted legal battle for contact with his two daughters.

In September 1993, after three years of living with Sally, Tony discovered she had been "unfaithful", and walked out. Soon after, Sally informed him she was moving to Somerset with her new boyfriend and the children - then aged three and one. "I was emotionally buggered and crying and felt hopeless. I said I'd take the one child and she could have the other, and she then screamed at me, 'All I did was have an affair.' She then told me she didn't want to see me again."

He went to a solicitor, who incorrectly informed him he had few rights and no chance of legal success. For three months he had no contact with his daughters, but eventually he ignored the lawyer's advice and went to court by himself.

Sally's barrister offered him a deal: contact once a month in Somerset in return for him agreeing to drop the PRR application. Tony refused, and after six months of interim fortnightly contact, he was granted parental responsibility. When the family returned to London last April, he was back in court and on a welfare officer's recommendation won a shared residency order plus contact with his daughters for a third of their time out of school.

"I was lucky to have favourable welfare officers and judges who did not take the usual view that the mother's rights always take precedence over the father's," Tony said. "So I suppose in the end the law worked for me, but from what I've seen, I'm one of the few."

A radical solution, proposed by some "father's rights" campaigners, is for both parents of an "illegitimate" child to be granted parental responsibility as a matter of course, with the proviso that either could apply for it to be removed from the other. But this is unlikely to be accepted because it would grant automatic rights to one-night stand fathers, who show no more than a passing interest in their offspring.

The problem seems to lie more with public ignorance than with current legislation. As Brett said: "If I'd known then what I know now, I would have made sure we signed a PRR order while we were still happily together."

Aside from the obvious need for the state and private groups to mount an education campaign on the issue, one answer would be to enable unmarried parents to sign a PRR order when and where they register the child.

In the meantime, unmarried couples still in a state of relative bliss could do a lot worse than paying a quick visit to court to pick up the appropriate forms, and then sitting down with a bottle of wine and working out exactly what will happen if things went horribly wrong.