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09 January 2013

Accessing information about your child

The Medical Protection Society (MPS) has announced that it has been inundated with telephone calls about children's medical records from divorcing couples. Requests from estranged fathers were the most common cause of confusion, they said.

Richard Stacey of the MPS said: "Access to a child's records can be a contentious point for separated parents and it has the potential to raise all kinds of issues relating to parental rights and the GP's obligations. We received a record number of calls last year and expect that this will continue to rise."

The situation is clear for divorcing couples where both parents will have “parental responsibility” for their children, which means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibility and authority that, by law, a parent has in relation to their child and their child's property. Therefore all parents who are divorcing are entitled to obtain information from doctors, teachers and other bodies that hold records about their child. They do not need the consent of the other parent to obtain it.

The situation is different for fathers who have not been married to the mothers of their children. The law still does not give them parental responsibility automatically. However, many unmarried fathers of children aged nine and over will have obtained it from being named on their child’s birth certificate following a change in the law effective from 1 December 2003.

If an unmarried father has not obtained parental responsibility this way he will either need to enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, if she will agree, or to apply to the court for a parental responsibility order. Both of these steps are relatively straightforward, but the agreement is far easier, cheaper and less contentious to arrange and therefore unmarried fathers will wish to pursue this route if at all possible.

If a court application does become necessary, in the vast majority of instances it is likely to be successful and therefore the cases where an unmarried father is prevented from obtaining information regarding their child and their care will be comparatively few overall.

However, Fran Hipperson, Senior Associate in B P Collins LLP's Family practice says that the real problems arise when children become older: "There will reach a certain point when a child becomes responsible enough to make his or her own decisions about the dissemination of information and doctors, teachers and, indeed, parents themselves need to be alert to when a child has reached this stage.

"When this happens will depend on the maturity of the child and the issue in question, but it could be at any age from around 12 to 17 years old. Once the child has sufficient understanding it will be up to them, not their parents, what information about them is released.  Even parents with parental responsibility are no longer entitled to private details about their child as of right.

"Discussions relating to children can become difficult between separating parents, even if both parties are trying their hardest to put those children first. Many fathers do not realise that, in most cases, they have the right to information about their children and that, if they are not receiving this directly from the child or their former partner, then, with caution and sensitivity, they can approach the authorities to obtain this directly."

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