Children and The Exercise of Parental Responsibility

Two cases have caught my eye this week. Both involve the exercise of Parental Responsibility: one in connection with the choice of name for a child and the second more specifically in connection with whether it is in the children’s best interests to allow them to be circumcised in accordance with the father’s Muslim practice and religious beliefs – the mother opposed this until the children were old enough to give consent to such a procedure.

The choice of forenames case involved a mother who had mental health difficulties where three older children had been made the subject of local authority Care Orders. Her parenting capacity was impaired by drug and alcohol misuse and she’d been in abusive male relationships. Indeed, it was said that the twins who were the subject matter of the case before the court, had been conceived as the result of a rape. There was no known Respondent father.

The local authority became involved after the twins’ were born when a midwife reported the mother’s proposed choice of names for the twins. She wanted to call the daughter ‘Cyanide’ and her son ‘Preacher’.

The local authority went to court on the basis that the naming of the child was considered to be an aspect of Parental Responsibility (PR). As a consequence, the local authority sought to limit the mother’s exercise of PR to prevent her registering the children with the forenames of her choice.

The choice and popularity of forenames has always been something of fashion and changes in taste occur. A recent trend is to choose names for children based upon where they were conceived or similar. However this mother had chosen names for her children which the court felt were not obviously indicative of a parent who was acting in a way which would contribute or otherwise secure the welfare of her children. PR is not just about rights and powers but also about duties and responsibilities. Consequently the court made an Order preventing this mother from registering the children’s forenames as Preacher and Cyanide.

Although the facts are unusual, the issue is relevant when one considers a child’s wellbeing.

The second case which grabbed some media attention concerned a number of issues decided under the Children Act 1989. In what is likely to be considered a landmark case, the Honourable Mrs Justice Roberts suggested that young children should not be circumcised until they are old enough to make the decision for themselves. Here, a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother disagreed about whether or not their sons, who were four and six when the matter came before the Judge, should be circumcised in accordance with the Islamic faith.

For the father, “circumcision has both a religious and social importance which overrides any slight risk which the procedure carries”. From the mother’s perspective, she told the Judge “I don’t want my children to be exposed to pain, risk or harm for the purposes of a culture of which I am not a part. I am not saying that they should not be circumcised but only at a time when they have made their own decisions. It is not mine to make for them any more than it is the father’s”.

The Judge had a very difficult task in front of her. The father was asked whether he thought there might be an impact on his emotional bond with the children were his application for their circumcision to be rejected until they were old enough to make their own decision. His reply was “That is a very difficult question. All I can say is that I am 99% sure that these children will be circumcised during their childhood. I am not saying I am going to go against what the court orders. But I will do anything possible to make sure that they are circumcised”.

Similarly, the mother was asked how she would support the children in the event that the court gave permission for them to undergo circumcision. This is what she said:

“I cannot mentally imagine taking my children crying to a procedure when it is something which I did not want done. It is not in the children’s best interests for me to refuse to comply with a court Order. It would be detrimental for them in the longer term. I would be put in an untenable position if I had to comply with an Order with which I disagreed. I can’t quite fathom how awful that might be. I am both a human and a good Mum. As much as I might want to conceal my emotions from the children, it would be very difficult to conceal my distress.”

What an honest way to answer that question. The mother was saying she would comply with the court Order and do her best to minimise any distress she might feel for her children’s sake.

The Honourable Mrs Justice Roberts performed a very difficult balancing exercise in making her decision. She said
“First and foremost, this is a once and for all, irreversible procedure. There is no guarantee that these boys will wish to continue to observe the Muslim faith with the devotion demonstrated by their father although that may very well be their choice. They are still very young and there is no way of anticipating at this stage how the different influences in their respective parental homes will shape and guide their development over the coming years.”
Weighing everything up, she thought it was better for the children that the court made no order at this stage in their lives in relation to circumcision. She did not however dismiss the father’s application. Instead she was deferring that decision to the point where each of the boys themselves will make their individual choices once they have the maturity and insight to appreciate the consequences and longer term effects of the decisions which they reach. The Judge was aware of the increase in the risks of surgery by the time the boys reach puberty. But she did not regard the delay between now and that point in time to significantly increase those risks. The safest point for such surgery had already passed.

Two very different but specific issues relating to the exercise of Parental Responsibility were dealt with in the cases illustrated, focusing entirely upon what is considered best for the children’s futures.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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Vanessa McMurtrie

Partner, Family

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then...

Partner, Family

Vanessa McMurtrie

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then worked for us on a part time consultancy basis while devoting more time to her family. During this period she was instrumental in implementing Hart Brown’s family department’s case management system and later, the quality system that led to the firm’s ISO 9001 accreditation.

In 2005 Vanessa returned to client work and joined Mackrell Turner Garrett where she stayed for ten years, before re-joining Hart Brown in 2015. Vanessa knows Woking and the surrounding area well and enhances the work covered at our Woking office as part of the family team.

Vanessa has been a Resolution member since 1991, committed to resolving disputes in a non-confrontational and constructive way. She has served on the Surrey Resolution committee since 2008. She is a Resolution accredited collaboratively trained lawyer and welcomes the opportunity to help separating couples adopt this process as an alternative to the more traditional options available.

Over the years, Vanessa has gained a wealth of experience in dealing with all the legal aspects of relationships coming to an end. She prides herself on being approachable and understanding as she helps her clients go through the legal process.

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