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Author Archives: suesspiciousminds

Go directly to the Ninth Circle of Hell, do not pass Go

 

Dante, in his travel guide to hell, sets out the various circles of hell and those within them. Within the ninth and final circle reside for all eternity four sorry individuals, exemplars of the worst that the world has ever had to offer (Dante’s work was written prior to certain unpleasant world leaders of the 20th century, and our current Lord Chancellor, so it may be in need of an update)

Those individuals are Cain, Athenor of Troy [betrayed his city to the Greeks], Ptolemy son of Antabus [invited people to a banquet and killed them] and finally Judas Iscariot.

We can now add to that circle of hell, a further group of terrible sinners, and one will not be surprised to learn that they are going to be local authority lawyers.

This arises from the President’s decision sitting in the High Court, in Re W (Children) 2014 [2014 EWFC 22]

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/22.html

 

The President has not yet found a power within the Family Procedure Rules to banish local authority representatives to the deepest circle of hell, but it is only a matter of time and generous interpretation. After all Rule 4.4 of the FPR 2010 sets out that the Court has powers to o)take any other step or make any other order for the purpose of managing the case and furthering the overriding objective and that pretty much seems to cover it.

And if that unbridled power is not enough, surely the inherent jurisdiction is the answer. If only I had known during my law exams that “The Court could use the Inherent Jurisdiction” is a valid answer to 90% of questions, I could have skipped all that revision.

I will come onto the offence that has provoked such ire in a moment, but the case is yet another of the ones where the Local Authority are late filing their evidence (the social worker was off sick – how dare a human being suffer from an illness that affects the Almighty Timetable) and allows the President to use his favourite word contumelious.

(I have my own suspicion that the President once put that word down in Scrabble and was robustly challenged, and since that time has been working to revive its popularity so that this will never happen again)

Of course on a 26 week window, there is not time for slippage, and of course if the Local Authority is late, that causes a knock-on for the other parties and will mean the case not being ready for IRH at week 20. And yes, over a period of time Court orders about filing have unpleasantly become vague aspirations rather than hard deadlines. I am in agreement with the President that this is a bad thing. I also agree that something must be done.

I’m not against restoring the principle that if an order says 4th March, it means on 4th March the parties have that document in their hands, not that the author of it starts thinking about writing the document on 4th March. Court deadlines need to go back to being deadlines (and not in the Douglas Adams sense “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”)

And of course, if there is slippage in the timetable, the Court must be told and be able to call the case back in. I think that the President’s idea that a Court order authorising the delay must be obtained for a 15 minute delay does not work in the real world.

A real world that has some Courts in England answering correspondence in June that was sent to them in February, that has Court staff so beleaguered and overworked that the remedy is to lock the doors of the Public Counters and not let the public in. Where sending an email to the Court service is akin to dropping a message in a bottle into the ocean – one hopes it will reach its destination but it would be unwise to put money on it. A real world where if every time a person was going to be 15 minutes late filing a document a Judge would have to consider an application and grant it and get an order typed and posted out to all of the parties. A real world where, you know, human beings get sick, and they aren’t always able to tell you the day on which they will no longer be sick and can produce their document.

In principle, one can agree that delay in filing on time is bad and the mindset needs to change. And that if there is delay, the Court must be alerted to that and given the opportunity to adjust the timetable. The President points out in Re W that there is not only no power for the parties to agree a revised timetable amongst themselves they are expressly forbidden to do so.

Indeed, such agreements are forbidden by FPR 4.5(3):

“Where a rule, practice direction or court order –
(a) requires a party to do something within a specified time; and
(b) specifies the consequence of failure to comply,
the time for doing the act in question may not be extended by agreement between the parties

In accordance with and deriving from the court’s powers under FPR 12.24, the standard form of case management order, use of which is mandatory, spells out (as did Judge Rutherford’s order in this case) the consequence of failure to comply, namely the obligation on every party to “immediately inform the Court if any party or person fails to comply with any part of this order.”

Practitioners may have found, as a result of Re W and guidance being given to CAFCASS, that there is now a semi-official policy that the parties should inform on anyone who has the temerity to be late filing a document. The reader will of course recall that one of the major planks of the Family Justice Review was that none of the professionals or agencies working in family justice trusted each other, and what could be more conducive to rebuilding that trust than encouraging the parties to inform on each other for wrong-doing?

Deep breath.

Now, the egregious offence. The “Go to Hell” offence

Compounding its earlier defaults, Bristol City Council also failed to comply with paragraph 7.4 of PD27A:

“Unless the court has given some other direction or paragraph 7.5 applies” – this relates to hearings listed before a bench of magistrates – “only one copy of the bundle shall be lodged with the court but the party who is responsible for lodging the bundle shall bring to court at each hearing at which oral evidence may be called a copy of the bundle for use by the witnesses.”

Bristol City Council had lodged a duplicate bundle, marked ‘Witness Bundle’, and moreover in relation to a hearing where there was no suggestion that oral evidence might be called.
Yes, the President was actually annoyed that the Local Authority DX-ed a witness bundle to Court rather than the advocate carrying it to Court. That is strictly verboten and the Local Authority outraged the Court by defying the Practice Direction. And the witness bundle didn’t end up being necessary, which is a double-fault.

I am perplexed that at a time when the profession is in melt-down, when public funding has been withdrawn from the most deserving, when solicitors are being laid off due to cuts, when the public are being locked out of Public Counters, when the family justice system is under siege by the Press, that anyone could find the time to be annoyed that a superfluous witness bundle had arrived at a Court.

If you have a witness bundle that you don’t need, you can just send it back, you know? It doesn’t require a bomb-disposal unit to remove it from the premises. It is just a lever arch file.

But this is now law, and the President has said in Re W that Local Authorities who breach the law can be ‘named and shamed’ in public judgments, be ordered to pay for the costs of that naming and shaming. If you DX a witness bundle to Court rather than carrying it there, then you are technically liable for those sanctions. And if you avoid them from the trial judge, you might still get hit with them if the case is appealed (one hopes that the witness bundle irregularities in and of themselves don’t amount to an appeal, but frankly, who knows any longer?)

This is symptomatic of the problem – professionals have been drowned with rules, practice directions, guidance, case law, consultations, Views. One could spend so long establishing the exact precise procedure for doing anything that the task itself takes five times as long.

If you reach the point where you are regulating everything to microscopic level, then the sensible useful rules get lost within the morass of rules and guidance for things that never needed to be regulated. Who honestly CARES how a witness bundle gets to the Court building as long as there’s a witness bundle in the Court room if one is needed?

This seems to be a climate where if one says “red tape” the response is not “well, we need to cut that down” but rather “What, precisely, is the shade of red being used?” and “What, precisely is the width of the tape? Does it comply with Practice Direction 19B Dimensions of commonly used objects?”

By way of illustration – if you are playing Monopoly, there are a few problems with the game. It takes too long, for one thing. And for another, the last part of the game is only fun for the winner and miserable for everyone else. So, let’s appoint the President to tweak the rules to fix those problems.

Well, now we have a game of Monopoly where :-

if you’re buying Bond Street you need to submit a full-blown mortgage application with supporting documents

if you’re putting a house on Mayfair you need to seek planning permission, consult the local community and submit detailed architectural plans (making sure that you are familiar with the building regulations)

if you want to buy the Waterworks there should be a privatisation fully compliant with EU procurement rules and the opportunity for shares in the Waterworks to be offered at a preferential rate to certain key stakeholders first.

There is a prescribed period of time for shaking the dice, rules about what portion of the dice has to land on the board for it to be considered a null throw and whether it is permissible to whisper “Don’t be a six” to the dice in the pre-throw procedure.

And heaven help anyone who wins second prize at a beauty contest.
Has all of that fixed either of the problems we set out to resolve? Or has it made the game even slower and even more miserable for everyone involved?

Sadly, although we have a choice with “Monopoly President’s Edition” simply not to get it out of the cupboard and play it, we don’t have the same choice with care proceedings.

 

 

Capacity and financial consent orders

 

MAP v RAP 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4784.html

 

I don’t often write on the financial side of legal family disputes (I haven’t done divorce law for about ten years, and it is the sort of thing that you rapidly lose expertise in), but this particular ancillary relief case also touches on capacity, and particularly capacity to enter into agreements, so it has some broader impact.

 

The High Court were dealing here with the wife’s challenge to a financial consent order that she had signed, having dismissed her solicitors. At a later stage, she considered that she had not been in a mental frame of mind where she could properly enter into that consent order – i.e the issue was whether she had capacity to sign it at the time, not just that she signed it and later thought better of it. She had had a long-standing difficulty with bi-polar disorder, which can be a fluctuating condition.   This was thus the wife’s appeal of the Judge’s order to approve the financial consent order as final settlement of the financial claims arising from divorce.

 

The appeal was determined by Mostyn J  (back on his area of particular expertise after something of a break)

 

The permission is sought to appeal this order well out of time on a number of grounds:
 

 

1. first, it is said that at the time that the order was made and indeed in the antecedent period leading up to the making of the order, there is prima facie evidence that the proposed appellant, the wife in the divorce proceedings, did not have capacity to enter into that compromise;
2. second, it is said that the court itself had no knowledge of the appellant’s state of mental health, and therefore approved an order on a false or mis-stated basis;
3. third, it is said that – and this ground has shades of duress – that the respondent husband exploited the appellant’s vulnerable position;
4. further, it is said that he at the material time was guilty of material non-disclosure;
5. next it is said that at the relevant time the appellant had inadequate knowledge and was without legal advice; and
6. further, it is said that, looked at overall, the consent order was wrong and should not have been approved, as it was manifestly unfair. It is said – I believe this to be arguable, but it is certainly not agreed – that the effect of the order was to divide the parties’ capital about 80 per cent to the husband and 20 per cent to the wife. Moreover, within the the share that the wife was left with were monies which derived from an inheritance from her mother, and indeed a considerable part of the share that the husband was left with derived from the wife’s mother’s inheritance;
7. finally, it was said that the agreement was demonstrably wrong and unfair because it provided for a clean break leaving the husband with his earnings and pension and the wife only with a modest pension for herself.

 

On the ground that the consent order was unfair, or so demonstrably wrong that a Judge ought not to have made it, even though it was a consent order, Mostyn J rejected that utterly

 

I say immediately before I turn to the facts, that inasmuch as a claim is advanced based on non-disclosure or that the consent order was generally unfair, I am completely satisfied that the proposed appeal has no prospect of success. As to the first, the evidence advanced for non-disclosure is but faintly put, and in my view does not come anywhere near establishing the criterion of arguability. As to the complaint that the agreement was generally unfair, that is not a valid basis for seeking to challenge a consent order. (See the decision of Mr. Justice Munby (as he then was) in L v L [2008] 1 FLR 26 at para.105).

 

The appeal therefore was squarely on the basis that the Wife lacked capacity to sign the consent order at that time. Mostyn J remarks that despite people arguing about divorce (and particularly money divorce) for over a century, this is the first time that this particular issue has arisen.

 

Mostyn J, borrowing from the  civil law, and civil procedures, arrives at the conclusion that an order made by consent by a party who lacks capacity to consent is an order that would be invalid and should be set aside. The difficulty of course, is in establishing capacity or lack of it  (remember from the Mental Capacity Act 2005 that the starting point is that a person HAS capacity unless there is evidence to the contrary). The order having been made, an appeal was an appropriate route to challenge it.

 

Mostyn J points to the provisions of Practice Direction 15B (not in force at the time, but in force now)

At the relevant time, I do not believe that Practice Direction 15B was in force, but a Practice Note issued by the Family Justice Council in April 2010 which is in the same terms, more or less, was available. Practice Direction 15B makes it clear that there is a duty on solicitors if they have concerns that a party may lack capacity, that they must notify the court. Paragraph 1.3 says:
 

 

“If at any time during proceedings there is reason to believe that a party may lack capacity to conduct the proceedings, then the court must be notified and directions sought to ensure that this issue is investigated without delay”.
 

It is a surprising fact that neither solicitor at any stage thought it appropriate to notify the court that there may be question marks over the wife’s capacity. The wife’s solicitors themselves were well aware that there were question marks in this regard as a letter was written by them to their opponents on 23rd January 2012 stating:
 

 

“We remain concerned as to our client’s capacity to provide instructions, and accordingly are seeking clarity on this point”.
I should say that that letter that was written when the wife was acting for herself but when her solicitors were presumably still formally on the record. It is fair to me to record Mr. Castle’s submission that at that time the view was taken by the author of that letter only on looking at the papers, but be that as it may that question mark should have led those solicitors to have notified the court. Equally, the husband’s solicitors were well aware in September 2011 that the appellant had been admitted to hospital, there was a letter to that effect, and they must have formed views as to the capacity of the wife, but they did not notify the court. Had the court been notified then I do not believe we would be in the position we now are.

 

What the Court had was evidence about the Wife’s mental health difficulties and that before the consent order had been entered into, her mental health seemed to have deteriorated in such a way that those advising her were concerned about her capacity. But the Wife stopped instructing solicitors and by the time she signed the consent order, she was representing herself. Thus, there was no hard and fast evidence about the state of her capacity and ability to make reasoned decisions on the day she signed the consent order.

 

Capacity for the purposes of entering into a compromise was discussed by the Court of Appeal in the first Dunhill v Burgin case and in the prior case of Bailey v Warren [2006] EWCA (Civ) 51. In that latter case at para.126, Lady Justice Arden said this:
 

 

“The assessment of capacity to conduct proceedings depends to some extent on the nature of the proceedings in contemplation. I can only indicate some of the matters to be considered in accessing a client’s capacity. The client would need to understand how the proceedings were to be funded. He would need to know about the chances of not succeeding and about the risk of an adverse order as to costs. He would need to have capacity to make the sort of decisions that are likely to arise in litigation. Capacity to conduct such proceedings would include the capacity to give proper instructions for and to approve the particulars of claim, and to approve a compromise. For a client to have capacity to approve a compromise, he would need insight into the compromise, an ability to instruct his solicitors to advise him on it, and an understanding of their advice and an ability to weigh their advice”.
 

Applying this test I believe that it is arguable, indeed strongly arguable, that between the time that the consent order was said to be formed in August 2011, right through to the time that the consent order was made on 19th April 2012 the wife did not have the requisite capacity while she was in hospital. In my view the case that she had capacity at that time is unarguable. Following her return from hospital it is true that she gained some kind of an improvement although she remained heavily medicated, but as against that one has to remember that she was making the impulsive and unwise decision to represent herself. So, I am of the view that there is an issue of capacity that deserves to be tried.
 

 

It is a pity that the Supreme Court has not pronounced, because there is a division between the judges in the jurisprudence as to whether the capacity in question should be investigated along a prolonged timeline, or just at the point of the contract itself. But, either way, I believe that the case is distinctly arguable, and so I would grant permission to appeal in relation to that ground as well as into the ground of lack of actual consent or withdrawal of consent. But, as I have indicated, I believe that this is a matter which can properly be tried at first instance.

 

Mostyn J did not determine the appeal finally, but merely those procedural points – could the Wife apply to set aside the consent order, would the consent order be invalid if she were proven to lack capacity at the time, and what the mechanism for the appeal would be.  The appeal itself was listed for two days and a lot will turn on the evidence in relation to capacity.

 

[It is possible, particularly when one looks at detailed consent orders about contact, that the same issues could arise. It would be prudent to look at Practice Direction 15B and to alert the Court if such concerns arise]

Epilepsy and rib fractures

 

 

This is a County Court decision on a finding of fact hearing, involving a child of two Brazilian parents who sustained a rib fracture.

Because I am childish, I like to think that the Judge specifically named the case Re O because of the Brazilian connection…

Re O (Minors) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/B44.html

The case threw up a number of important issues. The parents defence had been that they had not done anything and that there had been a Vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets, leading to weak bones. A substantial amount of expert evidence was called on this, and eventually it went nowhere.

The mother, who had been caring for the child L, during the relevant period, is someone who has epilepsy. She gave evidence about whether she had had a fit on that day
As to her epilepsy the mother said that she had five such fits during her pregnancy with F and two during her pregnancy with L. She could recall no fits between F’s birth and her pregnancy with L. Although she does not remember having such fits she usually begins to feel unwell shortly beforehand. Following a fit she feels drowsy, unwell and everything seems muddled. She did not recall any such symptoms occurring on 7th April 2013.
With that in mind, you may be surprised that the finding of His Honour Judge Bond was that the injury was caused during an epileptic seizure. I think, to be fair, that everyone else was surprised as well, and this emerged as a result of some expert evidence from a Dr Hillier
121 Attempts had been made before and during the hearing to secure the attendance of Dr. Hillier. He is a Consultant in Neurology. Unfortunately he did not give evidence until after the parents. He was the last witness to give evidence.

122. The mother’s G.P. had first referred her to Dr. Hillier in 2009. He has written a short report dated 30th September 2013 (C2199) about the mother’s possible epilepsy. He last saw the mother in November 2012. Dr Hillier found it difficult to make a clear diagnosis but thought that the mother suffered from faints which look like seizures, but perhaps has a tendency to fainting and to suffering seizures.

123. In his oral evidence Dr. Hillier went further and took everybody by surprise. He distinguished between what he described as partial epileptic fits and full epileptic fits. In his opinion it was possible that the mother could have had a partial fit, during which she injured L, but remembered nothing of it. Further he thought it possible that the mother would experience no symptoms, before or after a partial fit, that would lead her to remember that she had suffered such a fit.

124. The doctor described situations where a patient had attended his clinic and reported that he had suffered no fits since the last appointment. Not infrequently, the patient’s partner reported that he/she had observed occasions when the patient was “spaced out”, having had some form of partial fit, but which the patient could not remember.

125. It was because of this evidence that the local authority reconsidered its position and no longer sought any public law orders.
The very vivid illustration given by Dr Hillier was that he had once had a patient who had been peeling an orange, had had a partial fit, and continued peeling the orange afterwards, and that for this patient there had been no gap at all in the sequence of events, she had simply peeled an orange and nothing of any significance had occurred at all.

The suggestion therefore was that mother could have had a partial fit, injured the child completely accidentally during it and been utterly unaware of it.

The Local Authority, in the light of that evidence, threw the towel in (save for shutting the door on all of the Vitamin D debate in relation to this case)

That suggestion that a parent could injure their child during a partial fit and have NO RECOLLECTION of it at all is startling, but Dr Hillier’s evidence was clearly compelling.
The Judge had to consider whether this was capable of meeting the section 31 threshold in any event (for example was there some negligence or fault or flaw in the mother handling a child when she was prone to fits?)
In paragraph 8 of his written submissions, Mr Hand [counsel for the LA] deals with the question of whether the threshold criteria are satisfied. He referred to the case of Re D (Care Order: Evidence) [2011] 1 FLR 447 per Hughes LJ that the test under Section 31(2) of the Children Act is an objective one. As the Lord Justice said in that case:

“It is abundantly clear that a parent may unhappily fail to provide reasonable care even though he is doing his incompetent best.”

145. Mr Hand submits, and I agree, that on the facts of this case, if the court finds L’s injuries were caused by the mother during a partial fit, the threshold criteria are not met by reason of the fractures that L suffered. Mr Hand said that, had the Local Authority been aware, at the outset, of Dr Hillier’s evidence, they would not have instituted proceedings under Section 31.
[i.e so far as the LA were concerned, although it was theoretically possible for the Court to find that the s31 threshold was crossed by the child being injured whilst being held by mother who had a partial fit that she had no recollection of, they were not going to invite the Court to do so]
The next interesting point to arise is that clearly once the LA accepted the partial fit theory, and the mother and father accepted it, was it a done deal? In this case, those representing the Guardian felt uncomfortable about that.

168. Mr Tolson QC [counsel for the Guardian] submits, and I agree, that the medical evidence did not alter during the course of the hearing. The three jointly instructed experts agreed substantially, as did Dr Allgrove. The thrust of the evidence was that non-accidental injury is the only explanation, save in wholly exceptional medical circumstances which it is submitted do not exist in this case. It is submitted that the parents’ evidence was not credible and in this case the matter goes further than simply being unable to offer an explanation. It is submitted on behalf of the guardian that the omission of any recall prior to the observation of the lump is particularly striking given the obvious thoroughness with which the parent’s statements have been prepared in other respects. Further submits Mr Tolson QC it is clear that the parents were tired and under some stress on Sunday 7th April 2013.

169. In his oral submissions Mr Tolson QC accepted that he was now the only advocate who contended for a finding of non-accidental injury. Following Dr Hillier’s evidence, Mr Tolson QC had been able to take brief instructions about the Local Authority’s change of position. The guardian maintained her position, as I have just described.

170. Mr Tolson QC dealt with the point raised by Charles J in Lancashire CC v D & E, in respect of the guardian’s position in a case such as this. In the particular circumstances of this case, and particularly since the Local Authority’s change of position, the guardian felt it important that the court should have before it, on behalf of the children, arguments which supported a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury.

171. It is the case that the role of the guardian’s advocate in a fact-finding exercise is to be fully involved in testing, in particular the expert evidence. Generally I would expect the guardian to help the court by making submissions which alert the court to the important matters, but to remain neutral as to the court’s findings. In the unusual circumstances of this case, it was helpful for the guardian to maintain the position that she did, although I regard it as an exceptional course.
The Court therefore permitted the Guardian’s advocate to ‘test the evidence’ and to make submissions that the partial fit explanation might not be the correct answer in this case. (It would perhaps have been interesting to see if the Court would have taken a different view had the key piece of evidence, Dr Hillier, not been the very last witness in the case)

Here is what the Guardian (through leading counsel) had to say about the partial fit theory
172. As to the question of the burden of proof, and given that the Local Authority no longer pursued a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that the court must still, in the circumstances of this case, consider whether such a case has been proved on the balance of probabilities.

173. As to the question of the mother’s epilepsy, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that there was no evidence that the mother had had a fit on the day in question. Further, there was no evidence that the mother had ever had a partial fit of a kind which Dr Hillier thought might have been possible. Mr Tolson QC did not accept that Dr Hillier’s evidence necessarily meant that during a partial fit the mother would drop L and not remember such an event. He submitted that a partial fit would not fill the gap to explain the vagaries of the mother’s evidence, in respect of what happened between about 13.00 and 18.00 on 7th April 2013. It is accepted, on behalf of the guardian, that if the mother had had a full epileptic seizure she might not recall dropping L.

174. Mr Tolson QC submitted that an epileptic fit does not explain L’s rib injuries. For example if L had been dropped that would not involve a squeezing mechanism, which is generally thought to be the cause of a type of rib fracture that L had suffered. Further, said Mr Tolson QC, one such fit would not explain the presence of the bruises.

The Judge said that before having heard from Dr Hillier, he had reached the tentative conclusion that he was satisfied that the injuries had occurred but was not satisfied that they had been deliberately caused by either of the parent, their overall presentation and absence of any other troubling issues weighing significantly in these deliberations.
The applications for Care Orders were dismissed and the children returned home.  [It is worth noting that the Judge indicated that even before Dr Hillier's evidence, he had been of the view that he should not make a finding of fact that either of the parents had deliberately harmed the child]

 

The Judge had this to say about epilepsy

184. The question of epilepsy and its possible implications in cases such as this has been explored. There is clearly much to learn.

 

“I need not descend into detail”

 

So said the original trial judge in Re B (Children : Long Term Foster Care ) 2014

 

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/re-b-children-long-term-foster-care-2014-ewca-civ-1172#.U_YJE2NuVjM

 

The Court of Appeal took the opposite view.

 

 

[That might be the shortest case summary I’ve ever written. Let me see if I can get it into a Tweetable format   “Re B – judge says less is more, Court of Appeal says 'fraid not”]

 

 

Some slight elaboration – there was a point in the case where the plan for the children was placement with mother probably under a Supervision Order – that was the case by the end of July 2013. But by the time of the final hearing (September 2013), the Local Authority plan was for the children to remain in long term foster care and be subject to Care Orders.

 

The Judge agreed with the LA and made Care Orders at the final hearing.

 

There are some odd nuggets in the case, not least being that the mother’s new boyfriend was using the name of his brother as an alias from time to time, only to find that his brother’s Certificate of Convictions was worse than his own, that either the children were brandishing knives at neighbours or cutting string off a tree branch, and so forth.

 

There simply wasn’t enough in the judgment to explain to the satisfaction of the Court of Appeal why that was the case (they sent it back for re-hearing, they weren’t necessarily saying that the Judge was WRONG, but that the judgment didn’t do sufficient to show whether he was right or wrong). See the underlined section in paragraph 66 for the pithy quotation that will be deployed in all cases (since in any case, one can always find at least one advocate who thinks that the case is ‘finely balanced’ and persists in saying so throughout. Sometimes, to be fair, that advocate is me…)

 

65.  Mr Hall submitted in his skeleton argument that when the new concerns arose in the summer of 2013, the case was finely balanced, and in oral submissions, he acknowledged that there was a mixed picture including extreme concern at times and at other times positive involvement and engagement by M. That is, in my view, an accurate description of the situation. Mr Hall’s submission was that the judge scrutinised the evidence sufficiently, made the required findings, took into account the positives in relation to M as well as the negatives, and carried out the necessary balancing exercise so was entitled to find that care orders should be made. Indeed, he said, proceedings could have been taken earlier. It was notable, however, that in seeking to support the judgment, Mr Hall was obliged to have regular recourse to the underlying reports and statements from which he sought to draw further material to justify the care orders. That this was necessary reinforced my overall conclusion that the judgement did not contain a sufficient review of the evidence that was available to the judge.

 

66…. The basis on which we allowed the appeal was that the judgment was flawed in its approach to the events which led to LA’s change of mind and was lacking in the detail that was required to substantiate the decision taken. The more finely balanced the decision in a case, the more exacting must be the judge’s approach to the evidence, the more precise his findings of fact on pivotal matters and the fuller the explanation of his route to his determination.

 

67…the judge’s treatment of the background history compounded the problems with his treatment of more recent events. Mr Hall submitted that the social work chronology revealed pervasive profound concerns about the children. For my part, I have no doubt that a study of the history had the capacity to contribute valuable material to the judge’s decision but, in my view, there was no alternative but to look at it in some detail because it was a mixed picture. There were significant problems but we also know that the case was periodically closed by social services following short interventions and that at times, assessments were complimentary about M and sympathetic to her as a victim of prolonged domestic violence. The threshold criteria agreed were far from detailed and could not be relied upon as sufficiently informative of the history. Accordingly, it was not sufficient for the judge to deal with that history (apart from domestic violence from F) in a single short paragraph (§7) summarising the themes and concluding with the observation, “I need not descend into detail”. In summarising things shortly in this way, the positives and negatives were lost and there was no picture of what was actually happening to the children.

 

[68] In short, this was a case which could only be resolved by a detailed and critical review of the evidence, old and new, with each step of the way meticulously charted in the judgment. I have great sympathy with the judge who was trying to reach a determination for the children with reasonable promptness, within the confines of a two day time estimate, and without much offered to him by way of direct evidence. I am conscious that he took trouble to reflect on his decision before giving judgment. However, I am afraid that, for the reasons I have set out, his determination cannot stand.

 

 

The thrust of Court of Appeal judgments over the last year, and this goes hand in hand with the transparency agenda, is that a person ought to be able to pick up and read a judgment and understand why the decisions were made, without rummaging around in the background material to try to plug the gaps. It needs to be spelled out.

 

That has consequences, not least time pressures on the judiciary. A day spent writing a judgment is a luxury in terms of workload, but a necessity now if it is to be fireproof for the Court of Appeal. Where are all these extra Judge days to be found?

[I can't leave para 67 without saying - well, of course the threshold criteria were far from detailed, that's because we're told to squish it into 2 pages. You will see more of this]

 

 

Adoption and Islam : Milton Keynes and the Diet of Worms

 

If you want the recipe for Milton Keynes v X and Y 2014 it is this

 

 

  1. Open can
  2. Decant worms from can
  3. Liberally distribute worms everywhere

 

[Quick disclaimer - this post and the case deal with issues of faith. I am a heathen unbeliever, and I'm afraid that flippancy is something of a knee-jerk reaction for me. I have genuinely tried to rein that in, and be respectful of other people's faiths. I may inadvertently have failed to do that, or accidentally said something which will annoy or upset people of any faith. That's not my intent. I don't have beliefs myself, but I respect those who do.  The same will be true of the comments - keep them respectful please]

 

The case is here

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B102.html

 

It is a decision from a District Judge, and I actually think that it is a very good judgment – it is thorough, analytical and has a very good innovation of putting a real-person-friendly summary at the end of each section.

 

I think that it does lose it in the last few paragraphs, notably because you can’t actually tell whether the Judge has made a final order and if so what it is, but it was undoubtedly a difficult case to wrestle with.

 

Let me stress, that as a decision from a District Judge, it is not binding authority (other than being binding on the particular case concerned), but the DJ is right, it raises important wider issues and the Judge was right to publish it.

If I have the Judge’s gender wrong, I apologise, I had to take a guess at it. In doing so, I realised that my stock gender attribution for Circuit Judges is female and for District Judges male, soI deliberately flipped that around.

 

The central dilemma in the case is this – in a case involving children of Muslim parents, once the Court has decided that they cannot go home, is it right to weigh into the balance when deciding about adoption the Islamic beliefs about adoption?   And can those beliefs tip the balance?

 

It is somewhat odd that the case doesn’t refer to the lead authority on this very point, which is Newcastle v Z 2005. [Not the Judge’s fault, she ought to have been taken to it by someone]

 

In the Newcastle case, Mr Justice Munby, as he then was, had to look at this very issue. In that case, he had to look at whether mother was ‘unreasonably withholding her consent’ to adoption, given that her chief objection was based on her faith.

 

 

40. It is clear that the mother has a very deep and utterly genuine commitment to Islam.

 

41. That was apparent from the views she expressed in the course of her evidence, from the way in which she gave that evidence and, indeed, from the way in which she handled and kissed the Quran before taking the oath. I intend no offence when I say that her beliefs come over as the simple, unsophisticated and unquestioning faith of a woman who, despite her twenty-five years in this country, is still very much, I suspect, located socially, emotionally and religiously in the peasant society of Kashmir from which she sprang. But what is clear, and needs to be recognised, is that her faith is both very real and very important to her

 

[Thank goodness that he intended no offence, when describing her basically as a simple peasant girl with unsophisticated beliefs]

 

42. Her religious objections to adoption were simply but passionately stated. She considers adoption to be against her religion. She believes that the Quran – much of which she knows by heart – says that it is a mother and father’s responsibility to bring up their children and that adoption is wrong.

“Adoption is not allowed by Islamic law. My religious beliefs would therefore prevent me from giving my consent even if I thought that adoption was best for S which I do not.”

 

She believes that if a child is adopted then when he dies his soul will not get peace. She believes that if S is adopted, not merely will he lose his inheritance rights to certain family land in Pakistan but that she, in consequence, will not be able to go on Haj. She recognises that the Quran permits Kafala, which she describes as being very much like foster care, but says that Kafala is very different from adoption, as the child keeps the surname and inheritance rights of the biological family. She says that the Quran does not permit the full separation of a child from the family as happens with adoption.

 

 

[Haj is the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all followers of Muslim have to make once in a life-time. It is a core part of the faith. If the mother had not already undertaken Haj, and would be forbidden from doing so if her son was adopted, this would be very significant for her faith. But then, blood transfusion is forbidden by the Jehovah's Witness faith, and that has never cut any ice with the High Court. And of course, the Courts have been ready to reject faith-based arguments from Christians about all sorts of things over the last few years]

Mr Justice Munby (as he then was) analysed some material and documents that explored the religious implications of adoption for those of the Islamic faith, concluding this:-

 

 

46. In broad outline all this material is to much the same effect. There is no adoption in our sense of the word in Islam, but Kafala is well established in Islam as a means of providing care to children, allowing a child to benefit from the care of a good home whilst at the same time losing neither his family name nor his rights in his birth family. Kafala is best understood as the long-term fostering of a child without the right to kinship. Under Kafala the “adoptive” family never takes the place of the biological family, whose ties to the child are never severed; the “adoptive” family are trustees and caretakers of someone else’s child. The Quran (33:4-5) specifically reminds “adoptive” parents that they are not the child’s biological parents:

 

“Nor has He made your adopted sons your (biological) sons. These are but (figures of) speech uttered by your mouths …

Call them by their father’s names; this is more equitable in the sight of Allah. But if you know not who their fathers were (call them) your brothers in faith and your friends”.

 

 

The Judge in Newcastle v Z accepted that these were the mother’s genuine faith-based beliefs about adoption and that they were a genuine part of Islamic faith.

 

48. As I read him, the expert in the case before Charles J treated adoption as something not recognised by the Sharia and also, it would seem, as something prohibited by the Sharia, in the sense that the natural rights which a parent has in relation to his or her child do not include the right to agree to adoption. But there is nothing in any of the materials I have been shown to suggest that to give up a child for adoption constitutes a wrong or a sin exposing the parent to penalty or punishment. The only reference to sin in this context that I have been shown is in the Quran (2:233) where the following appears:

 

“And if you both (parents) decide, by mutual consent and counsel, upon separation, you will incur no sin if you decide to entrust your children to foster-mothers, you will incur no sin provided you ensure in a fair manner, the safety of the child which you are handing over.”

 

49.  That said, this case is not to be determined by reference to some abstract principle of Islam but having regard to the mother’s own religious and other beliefs. The fact is – and I so find – that the mother believes (and believes that in so believing she is a good Muslim) that if S is adopted then when he dies his soul will not get peace, and she likewise believes that if he is adopted she will not be able to go on Haj. Those beliefs may or may not be borne out by the Quran and the Sharia, but they are the mother’s beliefs. And they are also, I am prepared to accept, beliefs that can conscientiously be held by a devout Muslim as the mother believes herself to be.

 

 

Nonetheless, the Judge in Newcastle v Z still went on to rule that the mother was ‘unreasonably withholding her consent’.   This bit of the judgment may call to mind angels dancing on the head of a pin, as the Judge rules that she is ‘reasonable’ but ‘unreasonable’ at the same time, but this was the nonsense of the 1976 Adoption Act, where the need to rule that a parent was behaving ‘unreasonably’ in objecting to non-consensual adoption led to a great many hearings where salt was rubbed into wounds.

 

51. The mother’s religious beliefs are in themselves reasonable – that I entirely accept – but she is nonetheless, in all the circumstances of this particular case, acting unreasonably in relying upon them as a justification for refusing consent to her son’s adoption. The mother’s religious views demand respect and call for particular and sensitive consideration, but at the end of the day the question is whether, having regard to the evidence and applying the current values of our society, the advantages of adoption for the welfare of S are sufficiently strong to justify overriding the religious and other views and interests of the mother. In my judgment they are. A reasonable parent in the mother’s position, even one holding the mother’s particular religious views, would nonetheless accept that adoption is in the best interests of her English son. The mother, in my judgment, is acting unreasonably in taking the other view.

 

 

We now don’t have the ‘unreasonably withholding her consent’ test, as the test for finally making a Placement Order is that either the parent consents, or the Court decides that the child’s welfare REQUIRES that consent be dispensed with.

 

It is that little word ‘REQUIRES’, which some years ago the previous President said was a ‘common sense English word’ (Re P) and has now been developed post Baroness Hale’s minority (but hugely influential) judgment in Re B, into the ‘nothing else will do’ principle; carrying on its back all of the proportionality concepts.

 

As outlined in Re B-S (see about one blog post in four from the last twelve months, and if you have not so far heard of Re B-S, then you’ve got quite a bit of reading to catch up on. Have you just been in Court with His Honour Judge Wildblood QC, by any chance?), the Court has to avoid a linear approach and to look at the pros and cons of each placement option. The Court can’t simply rule out a parent based on the negatives and then go to adoption as being what is left; the negatives of adoption and the positives of placement with a parent have to be taken into the mix.  The faith implications surely have to go into that balancing exercise, rather than as the Judge did in Newcastle acknowledge that they existed but that they played no real part in any actual decision.

 

So, the question is, post Re B-S, is the approach of Newcastle v Z still good law?

 

It would have to be the case that the parent’s genuinely held religious beliefs about adoption would have to go into the negatives column on the option of adoption. They probably (?) don’t, of themselves defeat adoption as a possibility, because if so adoption would just be ruled out for any child of Muslim parents.  One can readily see that being abused by people as a ‘get out of adoption free card’  by converting at the doors of Court.

 

So, Newcastle stands up on it not being determinative, but I suspect that in a finely balanced case, it might be a very important factor.

 

That raises some questions of its own – if the incorporation of that factor is capable of tipping the balance in a finely balanced case, then children of Muslim parents are potentially being treated differently to those of non-Muslim parents.   Possibly a case could involve two half-siblings, one half-Muslim and one non-Muslim. Are those children in the SAME case to be treated to different standards? What about a case where the parents are not Muslim, but the grandparents are? What about if only one of the grandparents is Muslim? Where do you stop? Where the child is 1/8th Muslim? 1/16th ?  How devout do the parents have to be? Is it intrusive and offensive to even enquire about that?

 

 

In the Milton Keynes case, the Judge was taken to the Islamic beliefs about adoption (they are similar to those expressed in Newcastle, but there are some interesting additions  – for example that the central figure in Islam had himself adopted a child)

 

 

The children here had a Muslim mother and a non-Muslim father

 

102. I am concerned that one form of long term placement that has not been realistically explored by the Local Authority, or by the Guardian, appears to be Special Guardianship, which the Guardian considers only in the context of a family member being appointed as special guardian and the Local Authority considers not at all. This case, I recall, concerns two boys who are Muslim; and X in particular is taking a serious interest in his Muslim heritage.

 103. The author “Huda” writing on the website Islam.about.com expresses the matter in this way:

 

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) once said that a person who cares for an orphaned child will be in Paradise with him, and motioned to show that they would be as close as two fingers of a single hand. An orphan himself, Muhammad paid special attention to the care of children. He himself adopted a former slave and raised him with the same care as if he were his own son.

However, the Qur’an gives specific rules about the legal relationship between a child and his/her adoptive family. The child’s biological family is never hidden; their ties to the child are never severed. The Qur’an specifically reminds adoptive parents that they are not the child’s biological parents:

“…Nor has He made your adopted sons your (biological) sons. Such is (only) your (manner of) speech by your mouths. But Allah tells (you) the Truth, and He shows the (right) Way. Call them by (the names of) their fathers; that is juster in the sight of Allah. .”

(Qur’an 33)

Of course, in English law, an adoption order has the effect of making the adopted child, for all purposes the child of the adopters. There undoubtedly are observant Muslims who are prepared to accept the idea of adoption, in the same way that there are undoubtedly Roman Catholics who accept the laws of divorce. But it must plainly be right to respect the view of any devout Muslim, who says in the face of that teaching contained in the Qur’an that adoption as understood in English law is unacceptable.

 

 

The Judge in Milton Keynes referred to the philosophy underpinning Special Guardianship Orders, which in part were a solution for the faith-based difficulties with adoption. She quoted the White Paper

 

 

5.8 Adoption is not always appropriate for children who cannot return to their birth parents. Some older children do not wish to be legally separated from their birth families. Adoption may not be best for some children being cared for on a permanent basis by members of their wider birth family. Some minority ethnic communities have religious and cultural difficulties with adoption as it is set out in law. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children may also need secure, permanent homes, but have strong attachments to their families abroad. All these children deserve the same chance as any other to enjoy the benefits of a legally secure, stable permanent placement that promotes a supportive, lifelong relationship with their carers, where the court decides that is in their best interests.

 

5.9 In order to meet the needs of these children where adoption is not appropriate, and to modernise the law so as to reflect the religious and cultural diversity of our country today, the Government believes there is a case to develop a new legislative option to provide permanence short of the legal separation involved in adoption. This view was strongly supported by respondents to the consultation on the PFU report.

 

 

This is, frankly, a bloody good point. Part of the rationale for introducing Special Guardianship Orders were that there are sections of the UK population that have a faith-based objection to adoption as it is practised in the UK. Surely if that’s the case, then it ought to be considered as a solution in such cases?

 

 

The Local Authority in this case were saying that there simply isn’t a pool of ‘prospective Special Guardians’ in the same way that there is a pool of foster carers or prospective adopters. Special Guardianship really only represented a solution for children who needed permanent homes outside of the family if there were existing people in the children’s lives (wider family or foster carers) who would be suitable and willing to have a Special Guardianship Order. You can’t HUNT for Special Guardians, you can only find a person who is able to care for the child and then ask them whether Special Guardianship is something they would want to do.

 

(In short, the Court can’t make Special Guardianship Orders generically and ask the Local Authority to find the right people at a later stage, it can only look at the right people and decide if a Special Guardianship Order was the right order)

 

The Judge wasn’t taken with that argument

 

it appears to me to be entirely unacceptable, and to put the cart before the horse, for a public authority to say “We haven’t got in place mechanisms to implement a measure provided by Parliament, and therefore we do not even propose to try”.

 

 

The solution that the Judge favoured was that the current foster carers be approached, with a view to permanently caring for these children under a Special Guardianship Order. It makes perfect sense to me for this enquiry to be made (and frankly, one would expect that it HAD been made prior to the final hearing)

 

I would invite the Local Authority to give careful consideration to the matter, and to whether it would not be more appropriate to regard long term placement with the existing foster parents as the outcome which would best meet the boys’ needs if permanency in it can be achieved.

 

I would ask the Local Authority specifically to amend their care plans to clarify timescales and the criteria on which they would seek to move the boys from their existing placement, and to make it explicit that the boys will not be separated from one another and will not be accommodated in short term placements

 

 

In a more general sense, there’s another time at which the Court might be weighing up Special Guardianship v adoption; and that is in a case where the parents are seeking leave to oppose the making of an adoption order.

 

The High Court dealt with that earlier this year in Re N (A child) Adoption Order 2014 (see this post http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/05/10/special-guardianship-versus-adoption/   )

 

 

There are some key strands to be drawn together then

 

  1. In seeking leave to oppose adoption, Re B-S says that when measuring whether a parent’s application has ‘solidity’, one is not looking at just whether they would get the child back, but whether they could persuade the Court to make another order.
  2. The Court can impose a Special Guardianship Order on a person who doesn’t want one – there is clear Court of Appeal authority from the very first batch of Special Guardianship cases (Re S) that the Court could look at someone who had applied for adoption and make a Special Guardianship Order instead

 

  1. The Courts accept that there is a genuine faith-based objection in the Islamic faith to adoption as it is practiced in the UK

 

  1. Part of the rationale behind Special Guardianship was to resolve that faith-based objection

 

  1. From Re N, the High Court have set down a marker that it was due to ‘exceptional circumstances’ that they did not acquiesce to father’s request that the Court make an SGO as an alternative to adoption.

 

I have already indicated that this is an exceptional case. If it were not an exceptional case, I doubt whether an adoption order would have been appropriate”

 

 

It would seem to me, and I am no expert, just an opinionated law Geek, that the door to successfully challenge an adoption application on religious grounds and substitute it for a Special Guardianship Order is at the very least ajar, if not coming off its hinges.

 

 

Do Local Authorities, Guardians and Courts have to bear that in mind when considering making the Placement Orders in the first place? Do adopters who are considering taking on children with Muslim parents need to be advised that this placement might be susceptible to a successful challenge? Is there a need for a national recruitment and register for people willing to care for Muslim children for life under SGOs?

 

 

In the words of Chandler Bing – “Can open. Worms. Everywhere”

step-parent adoptions and nothing else will do

The Court of Appeal in Re P (a child) 2014 considered an appeal from a Judge who refused a step-parent adoption having applied the law (or at least the gloss on the law applied in the last year)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1174.html

 

Boiling it down to one question – does ‘nothing else will do’ apply to step-parent adoptions where the biological parent who is being ousted as the legal parent doesn’t consent?  Well, of course it does, one would immediately say. The whole thrust of Re B was about ‘non-consensual adoption’, that’s a  non-consensual adoption. And the whole hook of Re B was using the word ‘requires’ in the s52(1) (b) test  to carry with it a huge additional weight of proportionality and nothing else will do – running counter to the former President’s decision in  a previous  Re P that ‘require was a perfectly ordinary English word’  to import a meaning  that was much much more. (To be fair, that’s an additional amount of meaning taken directly from the ECHR decision of  Y v UK, which in effect was ‘the ECHR lets the UK persist in its weird ideas about adoption, but we only tolerate it if you take it bloody seriously’)

 

The legal test for dispensing with the father’s consent to make a step-parent adoption  (and these cases are almost always about fathers being cut out of children’s lives and legal relationship of fathers being severed – you just don’t get many stepmother adoptions) is s52(1) (b),  – the child’s welfare requires consent to be dispensed with.

 

So, of course, it must be ‘nothing else will do’.

 

And if it is “nothing else will do” then it is going to be spectacularly hard to demonstrate that for any proposed step-parent adoption  (not just that it would be better for the child to make the order but that there is literally no other solution – ie the status quo can’t remain for reasons which are hard to fathom, looking from the outside)

 

So, nothing else will do almost certainly kills off step-parent adoptions.

No, the Court of Appeal say otherwise.  (I will make it plain that I think this decision is wrong, but it’s the law, and we are stuck with it. I think it flies in the face of common sense, ignores the principle of least interventionist order and is particularly prejudicial to birth fathers)

 

Here is the Court of Appeal test for step-parent adoptions  (drawn from a 1999 ECHR case, Soderback v Sweden, which distinguished between State adoption and adoption within part of the biological family)

 

a) There is a distinction to be drawn between adoption in the context of compulsory, permanent placement outside the family against the wishes of parents (for example as in Johansen v Norway) and a step-parent adoption where, by definition, the child is remaining in the care of one or other of his parents;

b) Factors which are likely to reduce the degree of interference with the Art 8 rights of the child and the non-consenting parent ['Parent B'], and thereby make it more likely that adoption is a proportionate measure are:

i) Where Parent B has not had the care of the child or otherwise asserted his or her responsibility for the child;

ii) Where Parent B has had only infrequent or no contact with the child;

iii) Where there is a particularly well established family unit in the home of the parent and step-parent in which ‘de facto’ family ties have existed for a significant period.

 

Those all seem to me very good reasons for a step-father having PR, but why are they good reasons for making an adoption order and changing a step-father into a legal father, and changing the biological father into a person with no connection to the child whatsoever?

 

The Court of Appeal do say that where the biological father is involved and opposes, the position is that the adoption should be a rare event and that the case ought to be resolved by making private law orders instead (there’s the ability to grant a step-father PR, or Child Arrangement Order (residence), even a Special Guardianship Order – although that would be insane, because it would give the step-father the legal power to override the birth mother. That’s so crackers that… it will probably happen within the next year)

 

In so far as the earlier domestic cases to which I have made reference establish that, in the event of Parent B being actively opposed to a step-parent adoption, practical arrangements should be dealt with by private law orders, that approach is entirely at one with the modern private law relating to children which seeks to determine aspects of the delivery of child-care and the discharge of parental responsibility either by parental agreement or by a child arrangements order under CA 1989, s 8.
 

The making of an adoption order is primarily, if not entirely, concerned with the legal status of the relationships between the child, his natural parent(s) and the adopter(s), rather than practical arrangements. Thorpe LJ’s words in Re PJ adhering to the aptness of earlier cautionary dicta, and reminding professionals of the need to be aware of the motives, emotions and possible unrealistic assumptions about any new family unit, remain as wise and sound as they were when uttered in 1998. In this manner, the approach of the domestic case law sits easily alongside that of the ECtHR in Söderbäck v Sweden

 

The earlier authorities on contested step parent adoptions thus still apply, despite their antiquity so here they are

 

In Re D (Adoption: Parent’s Consent) [1977] AC 602 the House of Lords gave consideration to a step-parent adoption application made by a mother and her new husband, which was opposed by the child’s father. Lord Wilberforce, at page 627, laid stress on three matters:
 

 

i) that under the statutory test for dispensing with parental consent, as it then was, the child’s welfare was only one consideration; the test being ‘reasonableness’ (Adoption Act 1958, s 7); 

ii) consent should only be dispensed with in rare and exceptional cases, and this was ‘all the more so in cases … where the adoption is desired by one natural parent and the other refuses consent';

iii) an adoption order, which is irrevocable, should not be used to deal with practical considerations concerning custody, care and control or access.
Dicta of the Court of Appeal (for example that of Bagnall J in Re B (Adoption by Parent) [1975] Fam 127 at page 146) endorsed the third of these points and indicated that, in the event of the other natural parent opposing a step-parent adoption, the court would strive to achieve an outcome by ordinary private law orders rather than adoption.

 

 

This is going to make the issue of service of the birth father a very critical issue. If the birth father has been served and doesn’t turn up, the Court will probably make the step parent adoption order if it can be shown that the current family unit is settled and happy and that the birth father’s role has been limited. If he does turn up, the Court will probably NOT make the order.  Thus, making sure that the birth parent has been served is vital, and of course the likelihood is that these applications will be made after mum and birth father have been estranged for some years and without the benefit of public funding.

 

Relinquishing for adoption and nothing else will do

This is a High Court case, decided in April, but the report of judgment has only recently come out. I’m grateful to Celtic Knot for ensuring that it came to my attention
I touched on the (at that time unresolved) issue of whether the raft of jurisprudence on ‘non-consensual adoptions’ also applied to step-parent adoptions and relinquished babies where the mother was giving the child up for adoption but the father was not identified/told.

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/04/12/step-parent-adoption-telling-the-birth-father/

and this High Court case Coventry City Council and A 2014 deals with the relinquished adoption issue (and my next blog post will deal with the Court of Appeal’s decision on step-parent adoptions)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/2033.html

If you want the Too Long; Didn’t Read version – it is that I would be very cautious about relinquished adoptions particularly if there is any international element. If either parent is from another EU country, I would strongly urge you to read the judgment in Coventry CC and A. I suspect that it will make ‘relinquished adoptions’ considerably more protracted, complicated and expensive.
This case took nearly a year to resolve (with a baby that mother wanted to give up for adoption – so twice as long as fully contested care proceedings are intended to take)

Part of the reason why is that the mother was Romanian, and the High Court embarked on a process of notifying the Romanian authorities about the existence of the child and the potential order that would be made in the UK courts.

Let’s look at what mum had to say about her extended family

The hospital was able to contact the mother through her friend, Z, via a mobile phone and a meeting was arranged with the mother to attend the hospital on 7th June. Initially the mother failed to return but, ultimately, after some persuasion, she did so with her friend Z. She was spoken with through an interpreter speaking Romanian. At this meeting she gave her baby a name after some prompting with the social workers and held the baby for the first time showing some emotion in doing so. The mother gave information about her and her baby’s background. She said that the father was Romanian Roma but she was herself Romanian. She refused to provide the father’s name. She said that her family were not aware of her pregnancy. She had not told them about it or her relationship with the father and she had concealed the pregnancy from them. She said that her family would not approve of the relationship with the father as he was Roma and her mother would disown her if she knew. She wanted the baby to be adopted. She intended to return to Romania as soon as possible after she received her new travel documents.

She said she was from a named village in Romania, that she had two other children residing there, a son aged nine and a daughter aged ten and they were being cared for by their maternal grandparents. She had no money to support a baby. She said the father was aware of the pregnancy but was not interested and he was not aware that the baby had been born. She had come here on holiday to see her friend, Z, who came from the same area as the maternal grandparents. She had not told Z about the pregnancy until her waters broke. She said she had no fixed abode, she moved between the homes of various friends and had been evicted the evening before and was at that time staying with a friend of Z.

That seems, to me, to be a very clear message that the mother did not want her relatives approached or told of the existence of the baby.

Unfortunately, mother did not help herself because she didn’t attend the appointment with a CAFCASS officer to sign the adoption forms. Nor did she attend the second such appointment, and then she vanished.

The baby was thus not, in law, relinquished. Mother had agreed to give the baby up for adoption but had not signed the paperwork that would be a vital part of the process. That meant that rather than being a relinquished baby adoption, this had to go into care proceedings.

And, the case having gone into care proceedings, efforts had to be made to find and serve the mother.

[HUGE LESSON here – if you are dealing with a mother who wants to relinquish her baby, it is vital that she is made to understand that not filling out the forms is going to make life much worse for her. Fine to decide ‘I don’t want to sign them because I want the child back’, but ‘I don’t want to sign the forms because I want to stop thinking about this’ is just going to make things much much worse]

It made things much much worse for this mother here, because a process server was sent out to look for her in a Romanian village near Bucharest

The process server met with the mother’s own mother who is Romanian, who told him she is looking after the children at the family home, that the mother was not in Romania, she had left a few months ago to go to the United Kingdom. She said that the family believed she was working as a prostitute in the United Kingdom and recently had had problems and had been in hospital. The process server was unable to gain any further information but was able to say that the address in Coventry, which the mother had given to the local authority, did not exist.
In the second report, dated 30th November, the process server described the village as being small, about 100 kilometres from Bucharest, with “a majority gypsy population very poor and simple peoples.” He met with the mother’s own mother again who was shown a photograph of the mother. Initially she denied recognising the mother but later produced a copy of the mother’s ID card with a photograph of the mother. Whilst there, a niece of the mother identified the photograph as the mother and a sister of the mother did so as well. The grandmother then returned with a copy of the mother’s ID card and was able to confirm that the photograph with the process server was that of the mother. The process server then showed a photograph of the mother to a village policeman who identified it as that of the mother and said that she had been registered as missing but had returned to the address and was declared not missing. It seems he thought that she was probably in the United Kingdom and said that she did not have a relationship with her family. The local authority have been unable to trace the mother and has no information as to the father’s identity or whereabouts.

Remember, of course, that this mother did not want her family to know anything about the baby or to become involved. So that worked out marvellously for her. (I also dread to think how much Coventry had to pay for the Romanian equivalent of Jim Rockford to go out flashing this photograph of the mother around, including showing it to a village policeman)
The final upshot though, was that the mother was not found, and the care case thus proceeded in the absence of the mother, or a father.

What then happened was that the Court caused the Romanian authorities to be informed of the case. It took a while to get any response out of them, but once they started to respond, they got highly responsive, ultimately saying that they wanted the case transferred to Romania and were wholly opposed to a child of Romanian parents to be adopted, even where the mother herself was not opposing it.

 

the Romanian authorities have been informed as to the existence of A and the existence of these proceedings and the care plan for adoption. The care proceedings were issued on 9th August last year and the application for the placement order was on 14th October. These applications were transferred from the Coventry Family Proceedings Court to the Coventry County Court on 18th November 2013 due to the complexity of the international aspects. On 20th November her Honour Judge Watson directed that the Romanian central authority be invited to attend the next hearing on 4th December. On 4th December, although the Romanian central authority had been notified, no representatives attended but on 2nd December the Romanian Directorate for International Law and Judicial Cooperation wrote saying that the correspondence had been forwarded to the child protection directorate and that a response was awaited.
On 4th December Judge Watson invited the Romanian central authority to write to the local authority by 23rd December informing the local authority of its position concerning the baby and the substance of any representation or applications that they were intending to make to the court. A further invitation was made to the Romanian central authority to attend at the next hearing on 13th January, it being noted that the court may make such an order on that date in the absence of any representation and the court considered that sufficient notice had been given. Judge Watson also ordered that the local authority do have permission to disclose this order and other relevant documents suitably redacted to the Romanian central authority before forwarding it to the Romanian child protection directorate that a warning of the confidentiality of the court proceedings would need to be maintained until further order.
The local authority was ordered to send a copy of the order to the Romanian central authority under cover of a letter explaining that their attendance is requested at the next hearing when final orders may be made in their absence. Judge Watson ordered that the Romanian authorities should not disclose the birth of the baby to the maternal family without the permission of the court. She gave leave to the Romanian central authority to apply to discharge parts of the order.
The matter was restored to her Honour Judge Watson on 13th January. The Romanian central authority had been invited but made no representations and was not in attendance on that day. However, the court read a letter from the Romanian directorate for International Law and Judicial Cooperation and another letter from the director of the Romanian child protection department and noted that the child protection department was content not to inform the maternal family about the birth of the baby and the judicial proceedings whilst A’s best interests were considered.
The child protection department does not consider the adoption of the child as justifiable and that it seeks the return of the child to Romania. Various directions were made and the matter was transferred to Mrs Justice King to be heard in the Royal Courts of Justice in London on 17th January 2014. The Romanian authorities were invited to make representations to Mrs Justice King. It was noted that such attendance is essential if the court is to consider the Romanian authority’s opposition to the local authority’s application for care and placement orders. By paragraph 4 of the order if the Romanian authorities wish to oppose the local authority’s application for care and placement orders they are invited by the court by 16th January to file and serve a document setting out their case in detail whether questions regarding the child’s welfare are subject to determination under the United Kingdom or the Romanian law; however, the courts in England have powers of jurisdiction to determine the questions relating to the child’s welfare and any points they make in opposition to the local authority’s plans for the child, any points they wish to make in support of a plan for the child to be returned to Romania, and the plan they propose for the child’s care including how her medical needs would be met. The Romanian central authority was to be served forthwith.
The letter of 9th January which was before Judge Watson came from the Directorate of International Law and Judicial Cooperation addressed to Coventry City Council, “Please find attached letter of response from the child protection directorate concerning the child. The Romanian child protection considers that the international adoption of a child is not justified as Romanian national law provides specific and limited situations when international adoption can take place. The child protection directorate requests repatriation of the child to Romania where the local child protection agency will be available to make the necessary investigations and to adopt protective measures for the child.”
The directorate also wrote on 16th January again to the local authority, “Further to your message of 13th January, we are sending you attached the answer provided by the child protection directorate dated 15th January. With regard to the question raised by the Coventry County Court on the question of jurisdiction, it is our opinion that Article 13 of the EC council regulations number 2201 of 2003 is applicable, that the Royal Courts of Justice could also take into consideration and apply the provisions of Article 15 of Brussels II (Revised). As to the question of consent and participation by the Romanian representative at the hearing on 17th January our office cannot confirm that at this time.”
The letter that was enclosed came from the Directorate of Child Protection which is dated 15th January; “Further to your request for an opinion regarding the case of A, we believe that we should make the clarifications below. As you are aware from the information provided by the British authorities, the Romanian side has been asked to observe confidentiality about the situation of the child and the identity of the parents. It has been mentioned in our previous correspondence that there is a complete provision for Romanian local authorities to support and assume repatriation of the child considering that she is a Romanian national. However, given that the British authorities have only provided us with extremely brief information about the situation, we believe that their request dated 4th January that a series of documents should be made available by the 16th which should present a proposed plan for the child including the manner in which her medical situation would be handled and any other arguments meant to challenge the decisions made by the local authority that the child is adopted are unrealistic considering that any serious assessment must be based on documents that affect both the social background and they affect the medical condition of the child and the family environment of the natural extended family of the child in order to make a substantiated decision about setting up a measure of special protection. Under the circumstances in relation to the recent request by the British court we wish to mention that our institution upholds its opinion about the Romanian local authorities assuming the responsibility of repatriating this child to Romania and that the specialised documents will be prepared by the general directorate of social assistance for child protection from the country of domicile after the British Social Services provide us with the documents that describe the current situation. Whether a representative of the Romanian Embassy will appear on 17th January, please be advised that we cannot issue an opinion about the designation of the representative who will participate.” Then it was signed off

 

Yes, I have left out of my opening remarks that this case is going to involve Brussels II, but sadly it does. I just didn’t want to put you off reading it at the outset, apologies for my deception.
It gets worse, because then the Romanian authorities began to get cold feet about whether the mother was in fact Romanian, and that debate went on for ages and ages. Their position was that IF the baby was Romanian, then they would want the case and would oppose adoption, but in the absence of documentary proof about the mother’s nationality they wanted no part of it (and they weren’t accepting the process server’s detective work at finding family members and a policeman who confirmed that mother was from a village in Romania)

On 13th March the child protection department wrote the following: “Taking into consideration that child citizenship is still to be clarified, we would like to state that if the court would confirm the child is a Romanian citizen, then the Romanian local authorities from the county where the child’s natural family has residence would issue all the required documentation to return the child to Romania specifying also detailed measures and individual protection plan under which the child’s best interests would be protected. We would like to mention that repatriation procedure as well as the background checks are carried out by the Romanian authorities would be based on the government decision number 1443 of 2004 regarding procedures for the repatriation of unaccompanied children providing the child’s best interests would be protected. If, following the assessment made in relation to the child’s extended family or natural parents, it would be decided that the family re-integration is not an option, then a Romanian competent authority would recommend the child be placed in a foster care based on a court order. The child’s placement would be done by the panel for child protection in the county of residence thought necessary by the court depending on the evidence presented if special protection measures are necessary. Taking into consideration the child’s age, the foster care placement would be the solution to be considered by the Romanian authority as under the current Romanian law, a child under the age of two cannot be placed in a residential institution (orphanage). We would like to emphasise that for the moment the Romanian authorities have been unable to identify the child’s extended family members due to the confidentiality of this case. If the citizenship of the child and the mother are established as Romanian then the Romanian authorities will assume true responsibility for its repatriation be handling the case under Romanian laws.”
That was the final word from the Romanian authorities and the note that sets out the general picture, that letter does not give a timescale as to what would be done, when it would be done and when the child could be placed. There is a lacuna as to what actually would be done in fact and the timescale was not set out.

The Court had to consider the factual matrix to decide whether this baby was habitually resident in England, thus giving the English Court jurisdiction, and decided that she was.

I accept that it is likely that the mother and the little girl are both Romanian. I cannot say that I am one hundred per cent certain but the evidence firmly indicates that likelihood. The mother seemed to speak Romanian as her first language. She talked about Romania and said she was returning to Romania. It seems that we have located her family. I am not making a clear finding of that because all I can do is to look at the evidence before me and the mother is not here. The little girl was born here and the mother wanted her to be adopted here. There was no pressure on her to reach this conclusion. It was her conclusion and she gave her reasons. She said that she had no money to support the child; that her family did not approve of her relationship with the father, that they would disown her and they would not support her and that the father himself was not interested. She herself had concealed the pregnancy from her family and from her friend, Z. The mother has effectively abandoned A to her fate here. She wanted her to be adopted in the United Kingdom, hoping that she would find a good home.
Effectively the mother has left her daughter. Since the birth, A has been here, she has never left this country, she has been in hospital for good reasons after her birth and then when she was ill in July. She only left hospital in September when she was placed with her foster carers and she has not left their care since. She looks on them as her carers, as her family, their home is her home, she knows nothing else, she is only ten months old but she is comfortable, seemingly happy and settled in that environment. If she has a language, it is English. It is not Romanian. No doubt she is familiar with the sound of English. She may now be understanding a lot of things, I know not, but if she has a language it is English. Her culture is that of her carers. The environment in which she lives is that of her carers. She has accessed the United Kingdom’s health system. She moves around her carers’ home area with her carers. She will know their friends and her environment is that of her carers who are British, living somewhere in this country, although I am not sure where; that is where she is and that is her environment. She has had no contact with her mother since 7th June when she was still very, very small. It is clear to me that there is a distinct level of integration for this little girl in the social and family environment in this country with these carers. She has no connection from a practical day to day point of view with Romania. It is clear to me that she is habitually resident here and I make that finding.

In that sense, there is no need for me to consider Article 13 and I have jurisdiction because she is habitually resident here but if I am wrong on that, Article 13 would kick in. Where a child’s habitual residence cannot be established and jurisdiction cannot be determined, the courts of the Member State where the child is present shall have jurisdiction. I am saying that Article 8 applies, this child is habitually resident in this country and by that means I have jurisdiction
The next issue, then, was whether the appropriate venue for decisions to be made was England or Romania, applying article 15 of Brussels II

The Court decided not to transfer the proceedings to Romania (and if you are some sort of Brussels II addict, then the specific paragraphs are 44-50.

The NEXT issue was whether there should be an approach made to the extended family in Romania, and HERE for the first time is a live debate between parties to the proceedings. The Local Authority wanted to respect mother’s clear wishes, the Guardian wanted to explore the extended family so that adoption would only be the outcome if it was the last resort.

This has long been a difficult philosophical issue, and it is difficult to ever find a decision on this point that most people would agree on.

The Court here decide that it IS in the child’s interests for that exploration to be made, and place reliance on ‘nothing else will do’ (although it is quoted as ‘nothing less will do’). That, I suspect, is likely to be the conclusion of such debates in the future, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary.

It does, as the Local Authority submitted, raise the spectre of mothers not coming to Local Authorities to relinquish where they don’t want their family involved or contacted, but going back to the bad old days with babies being left in wicker baskets outside hospitals or police stations.

I move on to the last issue before me which is should enquiries be made of the maternal family in Romania and that this would entail a breach of the mother’s confidentiality. The local authority have said that there should be no more enquiries, that it would not be in A’s best interests. It would delay the proceedings here and it would delay the making of a care order and a placement order. The guardian is of a different view and says that there should be enquiries because it would be in A’s best interests if those enquiries are made.
It is never an easy point to breach the confidentiality of a mother who has given birth in difficult circumstances and I recognise that she does not want her family to know about the child and she has given her reasons. It has been said by the local authority that if it became known by a mother in similar circumstances, and if she felt that her confidentiality would be broken, she may not seek the assistance of medical help in giving birth; she may seek “a back street abortion” or give birth secretly which would endanger the mother and the child. The reality is that each case depends on its own facts. The matter is within my discretion.
Under the Children Act my task is to consider the child’s best interests and that must be my paramount consideration. It then sets out the checklist required by section 3 as to whether I make an order or relating to the welfare and best interests of the child. Under the Adoption of Children Act 2002, section 1(2) the paramount consideration of the court must be the child’s welfare throughout his or her life and I am referred to the checklist and things that I have to consider all relating to the future welfare of the child. The care plan here is for adoption. Romania, I acknowledge, does not have the same rules for adoption and their position for placing children is different from ours. Here, recently adoption has been described as the last resort for a child when all else fails and that was said in Re B [2013] UKSC 803 or, as Lady Hale said, it is “when nothing less would do”.
It is a last resort at the end of the day because it is the curtailment of a child belonging to his or her natural family. By adoption the child legally becomes a member of another family and is incorporated into that family on an everyday basis. She would become a full member of that family legally, practically, and emotionally. It is a change of identity of lifestyle, environment, a change of everything in a child’s life. It is a cutting off for the child from her background or the knowledge of the family and the environment in which she came from and it is a cutting off in law as well. The President in the recent case of Re B indicated that it should only be done on very clear evidence and there must be proper evidence both from the local authority and from the guardian and the evidence must address all issues and must contain an analysis of the arguments for and against each option. There must be clear evidence and proper information or as much as can be garnered. All options must be considered before a care plan for adoption can be accepted, with a placement order being made or an adoption order being made.
The court has a duty to ensure that full and proper enquiries have been made of the child’s family. Herein lies the problem, the tension between the little girl’s interests and rights and those of the mother. The mother is not present because she cannot be found and she is not here to put her view and her voice cannot be heard but she made her wishes and intentions for her daughter clear. She wanted the little girl to be adopted and she wanted full confidentiality and had concealed the pregnancy. It is not known how the maternal family would react or what the consequences might be either within the family or to the mother if it became known by the family that the mother had given birth to this little girl and had effectively abandoned her in a foreign land. That we do not know. All we have is the indications by the mother that the family was disapproving of her relationship with the father and she felt that they would not support her in keeping the baby, that the father was not interested. We do not know the consequences that might arise if the family knew about it. All we know is that she wanted confidentiality for her own reasons.
Against that, the little girl has her rights and rights that should be considered before she is adopted here by her current carers. Enquiries should be made to see if she can be returned to her family, her culture, her birth environment, the country of her origins and those are her rights. Both sides, the mother and the daughter, can claim their right to Article 8 of the Human Rights which is that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of respect except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety, and economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. In other words, in a case like this, there is to be respect for the individual’s private and family life and that the court and others should not interfere with that right.
I must also remember that if the information is correct, there are other members of her family, the grandmother, and there may be a grandfather, the half-siblings, and the father himself would have rights to know about this child, to have a voice in that child’s upbringing, if only to say, “We are not interested,” but they have rights.
It is established law that if there are conflicting interests between a child and adults that after careful consideration of all the interests and consequences of any order, and the child’s interests are paramount and they prevail over others.
On the one hand, we have the mother’s position, as she set out and her wishes and her intentions for her daughter. On the other hand, we have the little girl’s interests. Very little is known about her mother or her maternal family or their circumstances and even less about the father who has not been identified. The guardian, on behalf of A, says that it is important to carry out further enquiries and investigations to see if there is a long-term family member available in Romania, if there is a possibility of direct or indirect contact in the future if she is to remain here and to be adopted; and, if she is to be adopted, more information as to her background would be useful as to her family, their background. Such information may be of value to her in the future to know who she is, to know her background and to give her some sense of identity as to where she came from. Her guardian says that eventually if she is to be adopted, she will grow up to know that she has been adopted but she needs to know before she is adopted that everything was done that should have been done before a decision is made and that will be of value to her in her adult life. The guardian accepts that if there are to be further enquiries, there must be no delay.
There was a window of opportunity in February, it has narrowed in the last few weeks and there is very little time left if those enquiries are to be made. If I allow enquiries to be made, they should be strictly time restricted. The local authority say that there is enough information for this court to proceed, that this child needs to be settled quickly, decisions should be made and there should be no more delay given that the mother’s wishes are clear.
I accept, if there is to be further investigation, that delay is an issue. Fortunately she is well placed. If she is to be adopted there will be no move and therefore she herself from a day to day point of view will remain settled until more is known and further decisions can be made but against that, the stress and strain on the carers must be huge. They love her and are committed to her and want to commit to her long term. They need certainty now or very soon from now. It is not fair on them to make them wait for ever. I bear that very much in mind because they are doing a good job and the little girl is benefiting from their care. Anxiety within the home never is good. It will or potentially could impact upon their care and that is what worries me.
I have thought about this and it is not an easy issue but I have come to a decision. I have come to the view that it would be in A’s best interests to make further enquiries in Romania about her family and for the reasons set out by the guardian but those enquiries should be strictly time limited. There should be a strict timetable as to when they should be concluded. If they are not concluded in the timescale because it has not been possible, then decisions will have to be made in this court to conclude these proceedings. I think there should be one last attempt to make further enquiries of the mother’s family and of the father’s if he can be identified and of the provision and systems for child care in the Romanian locality.

 

As I said at the outset, this was not strictly a relinquish case, because mother didn’t sign the forms, but it is on any reading a case where that was her intent, and the High Court here apply “nothing else will do” as a rationale for not making the order, delaying the proceedings and making further enquiries about family members.

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