Child custody rights in the United Kingdom are determined by three legal systems: English law, Scots law and Northern Ireland law. These jurisdictions have substantive differences between them when it comes to determining child custody rights in the UK. Although mothers and fathers, and in some circumstances third parties such as grandparents, may have a legitimate interest in the custody of the child, custody is determined not by their rights but by the governing principle of the best interests of the child.
Many divorced or separated parents in the UK opt for joint custody of children. This means that both parents have more or less equal access to the children, and share decisions which affect them. Joint custody arrangements are often made amicably without the intervention of a court.
The mother of the child has automatic parental responsibility from the time of the child's birth until he reaches the age of 18. If the biological father is married to the mother at the time of he child's birth, he also has automatic parental responsibility. For unmarried fathers, parental responsibility is not automatic: it can be acquired in circumstances that differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in the UK. Generally, parental responsibility can be acquired by registering the birth with the mother, through an agreement with the mother or through a court order. Since an individual without parental responsibility for a child has no rights to make decisions for the child, unmarried fathers who have failed to acquire parental responsibility face an obstacle gaining custody or even access to the child in the case of a dispute.
A mother has the right to claim child support ("maintenance") from the father regardless of whether they share custody of the child. Mothers do not, however, have pre-emptive custody rights where a dispute occurs. A court will determine custody and parental access according to the best interests of the child.
Like the mother, the father does not have automatic rights to custody or access to the child. Assuming he has parental responsibility, he may be awarded custody in the case of a dispute where the court determines it is in the child's best interests. The court may take into account such matters as financial security, personal and domestic stability and parenting skills. If full custody is not awarded, a court may also make an order awarding joint custody or preserving the father's access to the child.
Rights of Third Parties
Third parties such as grandparents may apply for custody in cases in which neither parent is capable of properly caring for the child. Again, the court does not take account of any rights of third parties, but will make a decision based on the interests of the child.