"I WAS naive enough to think that my name on the birth certificate meant something," Phil says bitterly. "But really it means nothing at all."

Phil has been to court more than 20 times in the past couple of years to try to get access to his son. He split up with the child's mother soon after the birth and has been trying ever since to play an active role in his child's life. "I've worked hard to try and establish a bond between us. I think it's important that a child has two parents and I'm determined to play my part."

Stephen has also struggled over the last few years to see the twins whose birth he witnessed. He has not seen them at all for a year and a half because the mother has allowed them to be adopted. As an unmarried father without parental responsibility he could not stop her.

What Phil and Stephen and countless other unmarried fathers do not realise is that as the law stands they have very little right to any say in their children's upbringing if they split from the mother.

"The mother can take the children abroad, change their names, change their schools and the father does not need to be consulted," says Jim Parton, chairman of Families Need Fathers. But now Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, is considering whether unmarried fathers who sign their names on the birth certificate should be offered parental rights. Such a proposal would give a father the right to see a child regularly even if he left soon after the registration of the birth.

At the moment a name on the birth certificate is not enough; what such a father needs is "parental responsibility" - a concept introduced by the Children Act 1989 which it defines as "all the rights, duties, powers and responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property".

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility, as do married fathers. The Act also ensured that unmarried fathers could acquire parental responsibility through the courts - it did not automatically confer parental responsibility on them because of a need to protect vulnerable, unmarried mothers, especially those whose children had been born as a result of violent or coercive relationships. If Lord Irvine's proposals become law, a father would not need to go through this process in order to have these rights.

Many unmarried fathers are unaware that at the moment parental responsibility is something that is not conferred automatically. In 1996 649,485 births were registered in England and Wales, of which more than a third were outside marriage. In more than three quarters of these cases the father's details were included on the birth certificate.

But in the same year, 1996, the courts made only 5,587 parental responsibility orders, and only around 3,000 parental responsibility agreements are registered each year.

While the possession of parental responsibility probably has little effect on a father's role day to day while the parents are living together or co-operating in their arrangements for the children, should the relationship breaks down there can be serious problems.

"I was supporting my child financially but I didn't have any rights," Phil says. "I had been there at the birth, but the mother didn't want to live with me and I was being put in an unbearable situation."

He discovered the concept of parental responsibility late. "So I went to the court - I represented myself - and asked for it. Legal aid is very hard to come by. The judge delayed it for a years saying he wanted to see more commitment from me. But how can you show commitment when the mother is hostile to you and won't let you see the child?

"I've been back to the courts 23 times at the taxpayer's expense, waiting for a judge to make orders - and then the mother breaks them."

Stephen had also been present at the birth of his twins. The mother, he says, had been unsure of her ability to cope before then and had mentioned having the two of them adopted. "She said she couldn't cope. She told me that before the birth but I never thought she would actually take the legal option. It seemed like she was trying to exclude me from their lives. But I don't want to be an absent father. I wanted to have children with her and we did have a close relationship. I wasn't consulted on anything, even the adoption. The parents are a young couple who feel I shouldn't have any contact."

Jim Parton of Families Need Fathers said that such experiences were common. "We welcome the changes the Lord Chancellor is considering; they are long overdue. We see people having real problems establishing parental responsibility - a huge waste of money on the litigation side and a huge waste of emotional energy. Most unmarried fathers have no idea of the situation.

"I used to be quite outgoing but now I feel like an empty shell," Stephen says. "And it's not just me that's been harmed. My mother is now restricted from seeing her grandchildren. I am a survivor I think at the end but it's been very damaging."

Names have been changed