How long can a parent stay abroad with their child, without the other parent’s consent?

International travel has boomed since the pandemic, with many families planning trips abroad to make up for lost time.  Holidays can be a great opportunity to create fun memories for children in particular, but what happens when one parent wants to take a child on holiday without the consent of the other parent? This article will consider the law in relation to parental rights, the position on taking children abroad following divorce or separation, and provide guidance to help parents navigate the relevant considerations to be made.

Parental responsibility and the law

The rules around taking a child abroad without consent hinge on the concept of parental responsibility. The Children Act 1989, which defines parental responsibility as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.” Practically, this means that a person with parental responsibility may make decisions about the child’s upbringing, such as:

  • Where the child goes to school;
  • How to discipline the child;
  • Consenting to the child’s medical treatment; and
  • Choosing, registering or changing the child’s name.

How long does parental responsibility last?

Parental responsibility usually comes to an end when the child reaches the age of 18. The responsibility may however end earlier if:

  • A court makes an order terminating the responsibility; or
  • A child arrangements order ends or is discharged.

Who has parental responsibility?

Parental rights as a mother differ slightly from a fathers’ rights. In England and Wales, a mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth. A parent who is married to or in a civil partnership with the birth mother will also automatically have parental responsibility for the child from birth.

If parents are not married, a father may usually obtain parental responsibility by:

  • Being named on the child’s birth certificate or birth registration (if the child was born after 1 December 2003);
  • Marrying the child’s mother;
  • Entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s birth mother; or
  • Applying to a court for parental responsibility, sometimes known as a ‘parental rights order’.

Other adults may acquire parental responsibility in some circumstances, for example, through adoption.

Can parental responsibility be removed?

Parental responsibility will only be removed in extreme cases where it is in the child’s best interest. For example, for the protection of the child’s physical or emotional health. 

Note that the concept of parental responsibility is distinct from the issue of child custody or child arrangements, which concerns a child’s living arrangements, both in terms of where they live and with whom, and the time they spend with the other non-resident parent.

The rules

In order to take a child abroad for any length of time, consent must first be obtained from every individual with parental responsibility for the child. In the absence of consent being provided, the parent seeking to remove the child from the jurisdiction must apply to the court for permission in good time, and certainly well ahead of any planned trip. However, it is worth noting that if there is a child arrangement order which states that the child lives with you (and spends time with the other parent – what used to be called a ‘residence order’), and there are no court orders preventing you from taking the child abroad, then you may take them abroad for up to 28 days without the requirement to obtain consent from the non-resident parent in advance.

Where consent is required, it is advisable to get written consent in the form of a signed letter from each other individual with parental responsibility towards the child. You may be required to produce this letter at the UK or foreign border, or you may need to rely on it in the case of any dispute. The letter should include contact details for the other person. If you and the child do not share a surname then it is also wise to carry documents which evidence your relationship with the child, such as a birth or adoption certificate, a divorce or marriage certificate, or any change of name deed where relevant.

If you are unable to get consent of other individuals with parental responsibility to take a child abroad, you can apply to the family court for permission. This will involve providing details about the trip, such as the destination, and proposed departure and return dates, as well as details of other people with parental responsibility staying in England and Wales. The court will consdier your application and may then make what is referred to as a ‘specific issue order’, allowing the child to go abroad.

Conversely, if a parent or other adult with parental responsibility wishes to prevent a child being taken abroad, perhaps because of concerns that the child will not be brought back to England or Wales, they may apply to the court for a ‘prohibited steps order’ to stop the child being taken abroad.

In each case, the court will consider the wishes of the parents (or other adults with parental responsibility) and decide what is in the child’s best interests. 

As with all matters relation to children, it is preferable to seek to reach an agreement outside of the courts directly with the other parent in the first instance, using open and honest communication, or other means of dispute resolution, such as mediation, before engaging in court proceedings.

What happens if you don’t get permission?

If you do not have the appropriate permission to take a child out of the jurisdiction of England and Wales, or abroad internationally, and you do so anyway, you could face charges of child abduction. Child abduction is a criminal offense under the Child Abduction Act 1984 and it can carry serious consequences.

How can we help

Whether you are divorced or separated we understand that you want to continue creating memories with your child. This issue of taking a child abroad can be complex where there is disagreement amongst adults with parental responsibility for that child. Our experienced team of family lawyers at Edwards Family Law will help you navigate your parental legal rights, responsibilities, the relevant legal procedures and other considerations to ensure that you are able to reach a solution that is in the child’s best interests. If you have any questions, please get in touch with us at Edwards Family Law.