I had the privilege of teaching Family Law at the University of Bristol with Nigel from the late 1970s. Nigel's Family Law course was rather different from others at that time, since he was absolutely clear that the law relating to the parent – child relationship should form a significant part of the syllabus rather than being confined, as was then common, to a few weeks of study at the end of the course. He rightly identified that the shift in family relationships away from marriage rendered the concept and content of legal parenthood of increasing importance and he was determined to reflect this approach in his teaching. I have had the enormous benefit of Nigel's example, advice and wisdom, to draw on for the rest of my academic career, as a colleague (first at Bristol and later, at CardiffUniversity), collaborator (on empirical projects, as co-editors – initially with Stephen Cretney – of the case reports in the journal Family Law, and as co-authors of Bromley's Family Law), and friend.
In this chapter, drawing on Nigel's original insight regarding the centrality of the parent – child relationship, I examine developments in the law in England and Wales governing the grant to, and exercise by, fathers, of parental responsibility. I seek to show that in determining this issue, the law has increasingly come to equate personal ‘commitment’ – by which is meant the emotional dedication that the father shows towards the child – with the child's best interests, confusing parental inclination with children's welfare. I illustrate this thesis through a focus on two key areas: the automatic grant of parental responsibility to unmarried fathers who are recorded on the birth register; and the allocation of caring time between separated parents in shared parenting arrangements.
In English law, while all married or civilly partnered parents have parental responsibility automatically from the child's birth, in the case of unmarried parents, only the legal mother holds parental responsibility and the father has to take steps to acquire it to share with her.