Dismay of fathers who have no legal rights over their children

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HUNDREDS OF thousands of unmarried fathers are raising and supporting their children without realising that they have no legal say in their upbringing, medical treatment or religion.

New research has found that the majority of men wrongly believe that if they have signed their child's birth certificate they have an automatic and legal right to look after their offspring.

Last year, the government announced plans to change the status of unmarried fathers by giving automatic parental responsibility to fathers who signed the birth certificate, but as yet no date has been set for this change.

Family specialists believe that the government is delaying the legislation because of its new drive to encourage people to get married. As a result unmarried fathers have been left with all the financial liability but no legal rights to see or look after their own children.

The study, of more than 200 fathers, published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that three-quarters of the fathers had no idea that there was a difference in legal status between married and unmarried fathers. They were unaware that unmarried fathers needed a court order or court-registered parental responsibility agreement before they could exercise full parental rights.

"There is a complete lack of information about who has parental responsibility. When fathers go and register the birth with the mother they are not told that it has no legal status. They thought that cohabiting couples were treated the same as married couples which is just not the case," said Ros Pickford, research associate at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, and author of the study.

"The existing law is a muddle and was viewed by most of the fathers we interviewed ... as illogical, unfair and out of date. While recent policy has aimed to foster lifelong commitment on the part of parents, fathers in the survey felt their role was actually being undermined and devalued by this aspect of the law," she said.

Children born outside marriage now account for 38 per cent of all births in England and Wales. Of these, three quarters are jointly registered by the parents. Yet out of 230,000 babies born each year to unmarried parents, only 3,000 couples make legal agreements and another 5,500 fathers obtain court orders.

Philip Rose, a 33-year-old teacher, from Cambridge, was living with his partner when they had their son, Ahren, now four. "I expected us to be together for ever. We thought of getting married but neither of us was particularly religious, so we didn't bother," he said.

Mr Rose's relationship eventually ended and he realised that he had no right to see his son. "I couldn't believe it. All of a sudden I had people telling me I was not a parent, which was devastating. I realised that if my son had an accident and I took him to hospital I could not authorise any treatment and eventually managed to persuade my ex-partner to sign a parental responsibility order," he said.

Ms Pickford said many unmarried fathers were unhappy about having to go to court for a parental responsibility order.

"A lot of fathers said they were uncomfortable and annoyed about the procedure because they felt if they had to go to court with their partner it implied a lack of faith in their relationship," she said.