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Category Archives: adoption

Italian C-section case – the final chapter

 

I don’t know that this one needs a lot of introduction – it was national, if not international, news in December (although the facts were rather different to the media reports).

This is the judgment from the adoption hearing, which was the last stage left.  It was allocated to the President of the Family Division, a judge who has not been afraid to grant leave to oppose  (indeed his lead judgment in Re B-S on that very point was the decision that led to such changes)

 

Re P (A child) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1146.html

You may remember from all of the press reports at the time that mother now had solicitors and was going to fight for her child back. That has not materialised. As the President says :-

 

 

  • As of 1 April 2014 the position remained as it had been on 17 December 2013. Despite what had been said in the correspondence from Brendan Fleming and Dawson Cornwell in December 2013, no application of any kind had been made on behalf of either the mother or the Italian authorities, whether to the Court of Protection, the Chelmsford County Court or the Family Division, nor had any application been made to the Court of Appeal. In particular, it is to be noted, neither the mother, nor for that matter the father, had made any application in accordance with section 47(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 for leave to oppose the making of an adoption order.

 

To be fair to them, getting public funding for a leave to oppose adoption application isn’t easy (though I have seen determined solicitors get it on a much less contentious case than this one, and of course if one is deeply committed to the cause there is always pro bono option – for example, the mother in the Re B-S case didn’t have legal aid and her lawyers did the work for free)

The Judge sets out quite a lot of the email and correspondence between the Local Authority and the mother about this hearing and the chance to express her views

 

  • The email notifying the mother of the hearing was sent to her on 7 March 2014. A follow up email was sent on 12 March 2014. The mother responded by email later the same day:

 

 

“Dear Lynne thank you for your email I don’t have an advocate and unfortunately I will not able to attend Court, I received all the paperwork that you mailed to the adresse. Thank you very much”

Essex County Council replied by email on 13 March 2014:

“Many thanks Allesandra.

Would you wish to express your view via an email which we can present to the Court on your behalf?

Lynne”

There was no response, so Essex County Council emailed again on 27 March 2014:

“Alessandra – I just wish to remind you that the hearing in respect of [P] will be on Tuesday 1st April.

I know that you are unable to attend the hearing, but as previously stated, if there is anything that you wish the Court to know about your views on the proposed adoption then please email me by Monday 3 p.m. so I can ensure your views are available to the Court.””

The final email from the mother arrived on 28 March 2014:

“Dear Lynne

I wish for my daughter the best. Me personally I am trying to forget this bad experience I had in England. I love my daughter with all my heart and I pray to see her one day again.”

 

With that in mind, it is not a surprise that the President went on to make the adoption order, as there was no challenge to it. Obviously this is a sad case, as all adoptions are. Perhaps the mother had given up hope, perhaps she thought that she would have no chance of success, perhaps she just wasn’t in a place where a fight was something she could manage. I feel for her. Less for some of the journalists who high-jacked her tragedy to make cheap and inaccurate points.

I suspect that this judgment won’t get the publicity that the shrill allegations got back in December.

 

 

 

 

Adoption proceedings – member of extended family wishing to challenge

The Court of Appeal dealt with the appeal of a non-parent who was not given permission to oppose the making of an adoption order.

 

(The relationship here is a tricky one – the appellant was the mother of mum’s partner, so had no biological or familial relationship to the child, but had been caring for the child for most of the child’s life before care proceedings were issued. “Extended family” is probably as close as we are going to get in terms of an umbrella term for someone like this)

 Re G (A child) 2014

 

It throws up what the Court of Appeal describe as a “technical novelty” (which is a phrase I may pinch for my tombstone in years to come  – assuming that I don’t imitate Woody Allen’s assertion  “I intend to live forever – or die trying”)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/432.html

 The appellant could not seek to revoke the Placement Order, since an application for adoption was already lodged.  

The appellant could not seek leave to oppose the making of the adoption order, since she was not a parent     (an application for leave is limited to “parent” under s47, and importantly “parent” is defined in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 as someone who holds parental responsibility – so a father without PR could not apply for leave to oppose the making of an adoption order)

 

She could apply for party status, or the Court could, knowing of her interest, make her a party of its own motion   FPR 2010, r 14.3(3) provides that:

“the court may at any time direct that (a) any other person or body be made a respondent to the proceedings; or (b) a party be removed.”

 

But what she really wanted was to be able to challenge the making of an order.

 Some digging and clever work by the lawyers involved reveals the answer

 

Adoption and Children Act 2002   (underlining mine)

 

S 29(3) and (4) which provide:

“(3) Where a placement order is in force—

(a) no prohibited steps order, residence order or specific issue order, and

(b) no supervision order or child assessment order,

may be made in respect of the child.

(4) Subsection (3)(a) does not apply in respect of a residence order if—

(a) an application for an adoption order has been made in respect of the child, and

(b) the residence order is applied for by a parent or guardian who has obtained the court’s leave under subsection (3) or (5) of section 47 or by any other person who has obtained the court’s leave under this subsection.

 

 

So, someone who is NOT a parent (i.e has PR) can apply for leave to make a residence order, and the Court can consider that application. Obviously the successful application for a residence order has the effect of resisting the adoption order, since the child moves from adopters to the applicant.

 

 The question then arises – what is the test for obtaining the Court’s leave under s29(4) to apply for a residence order ?

 

Unlike the statutory provisions governing an application for leave to apply to revoke a placement order (s 24) or leave to apply to oppose an adoption (s 47), s 29(4)(b) does not contain an express statutory requirement for the court to be satisfied that there has been a “change in circumstances”. Miss Meyer submits that, nevertheless, such a requirement should be read in to the statutory provision on the basis that it would seem inappropriate for a person who is neither a parent nor a guardian to face a lower requirement than the one facing a parent or guardian on the question of whether or not they are allowed back in before a court to contest either the continued existence of the placement order or any subsequent adoption application.

 

 

It proved quite problematic to resolve whether on an application under s29(4) the child’s welfare was paramount   (the Adoption and Children Act, unlike the Children Act, makes heavy weather of welfare paramountcy and this is something that the Courts have had to tackle before)

 

26It follows that a court is not required to afford paramount consideration to the welfare of the child when determining whether or not to grant leave to apply for a residence order under s 29. There is, however, no reason for departing from the approach described by Wilson LJ, as he then was, in Warwickshire CC v M at paragraph 29 when describing the second stage of an application for leave under s 24(3) once a change in circumstances has been established:

“…a discretion arises in which the welfare of the child and the prospect of success should both be weighed. My view is that the requisite analysis of the prospect of success will almost always include the requisite analysis of the welfare of the child. For, were there to be a real prospect that an applicant would persuade the court that a child’s welfare would best be served by revocation of the placement order, it would surely almost always serve the child’s welfare for the applicant to be given leave to seek to do so. Conversely, were there not to be any such real prospect, it is hard to conceive that it would serve the welfare of the child for the application for leave to be granted.”

 

 

 

 

Is there a “two-stage” test for s29(4)   (i.e change of circumstances – not welfare paramountcy, and then if that shown should the application for leave be granted balancing the welfare of the child and prospect of success)

 

27 Finally, in terms of the test to be applied, Miss Meyer’s submission that an applicant for leave under s 29(4) must establish, as a first stage, “a change in circumstances”, in like manner to the test facing those who apply under s 24 and s 47, is not accepted by Miss Henke. She submits that whether or not there has been a change in circumstances may be relevant in some cases, however, where, as here, the provision applies to “any other person” that class of individuals could include, for example, a natural father of a child who lacks parental responsibility. He, it is suggested, may emerge into the subsequent adoption proceedings late in the day, and have played no part in the “circumstances” which justified the making of the original placement order. Miss Henke therefore argues that there should be a one stage test within which the court will, naturally, look at the previous factual matrix and compare the current circumstances but without the formal structural need for a discrete first stage at which “a change in circumstances” has to be established.

28 There is, on this point, a danger of the court dancing on the head of a pin and considering a difference which, in reality, is without a distinction. In any application of this nature, where the applicant is not simply wishing to have a voice in the proceedings but is seeking leave to apply for a residence order, the underlying factual circumstances, and any change in those circumstances since the making of the original placement order, is likely to be of great relevance. Parliament has, however, held back from introducing an express statutory provision requiring the court to be satisfied about a change in circumstances where the application is for leave under s 29(4), in contrast to the approach taken in the other two provisions. I would therefore step back from holding that there is such a specific requirement where leave is sought under s 29(4). However, when considering whether to grant leave to apply under s 29(4), and when adopting the approach described by Wilson LJ in Warwickshire CC v M, I consider that any change in the underlying circumstances will be of great relevance both when the court assesses the prospects of success for the proposed residence application and when considering the welfare of the child.

 

 

So, the Court of Appeal say that a relative making an application under s29(4) for leave to make a residence order application when there’s an adoption application lodged, does not HAVE to show a change in circumstances since the making of a Placement Order (as a parent would) but whether there has would certainly be a relevant factor when considering the application.

 

That, oddly, puts the test for a father without PR wanting to challenge an adoption order as being slightly lower than for a mother or father who HAVE PR (which was Lorna Meyer QCs point earlier)

 

 

the circumstances of this appellant could have been catered for by treating her application as an application for leave to apply for a residence order under s 29(4) for the reasons I have given. If such an application were made there is no discrete requirement for the establishment of a change in circumstances, ACA 2002, s 1 does not govern the determination of the application by requiring the court to hold the child’s welfare as its paramount consideration, but the application would fall for adjudication in accordance with the approach described by Wilson LJ in Warwickshire CC v M.

 

 

Because all of this technical analysis was not available to the original judge, the Court of Appeal had to revisit the decision made not to allow the appellant to participate.

 

The Court considered that the appellant had not shown sufficient to pass the newly minted test for s29(4) applications   (note, however, what is said about a FATHER without parental responsibility, in relation to whether a person who does not have leave to make an application or leave to oppose could nonetheless be joined as a party)

 

45 Thus, when viewed from the perspective both of the prospects of success and of the child’s welfare, AR’s application for permission to apply for a residence order under ACA 2002, s 29(4) must fail.

46 In contrast to the position of a father who lacks parental responsibility, and who wishes simply to be heard as a party to a final adoption application with respect to his child, AR, as a non-relative who was, however, the primary carer for G during the first 18 months of his life, does not in my view have a sufficient interest to be joined as a respondent to the adoption application in the absence of any ability to make a substantive application in the proceedings.

47 In all the circumstances, when applying the statutory scheme to AR’s position as it is now clear the judge should have done, the outcome of the balancing exercise in respect of both s 29(4) and joinder as a party is inevitable; both applications must fail. As a result, there is no ground for overturning the outcome as determined by HHJ Edwards. I would therefore dismiss the appeal.

Step-parent adoption – telling the birth father

 

The High Court have just considered this issue in  A and B v P Council 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1128.html

This is a step-parent adoption, i.e the child’s step-father seeking to become the child’s legal father, which would have the effect of severing the birth father’s legal relationship with the child. There are a raft of nationalities involved here, and the birth father’s name is on the birth certificate. The birth was recorded in Thailand, and thus it was not clear whether this gave him “parental responsibility”  [The High Court had initially decided to proceed on the assumption that he DID have PR]

The mother and step-father say that they do not have an address for the father, and he has had no contact with the child, who is now 9, for many years – in fact since just after his birth.

The issue for the Court was whether the adoption could go ahead without father being served with notice.

 

The Relevant Legal Framework

 

 

  • There is a measure of agreement between the parties, the Local Authority and Cafcass Legal regarding the relevant legal framework for this application.

 

 

 

 

  • A parent with parental responsibility is an automatic party to the proceedings under rule 14.1 Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010).

 

 

 

 

  • A parent who does not have parental responsibility may be given notice of the proceedings and that person may apply to the court for party status (rule 14.3 FPR 2010).

 

 

 

  • It is agreed that if the father did hold parental responsibility under Thai law, that is not recognised in England and Wales for the purposes of English adoption law.

 

 

 

 

  • This is due to the operation of Article 4 of the Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-Operation in respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children (Concluded 19 October 1996) (hereafter referred to as the 1996 Convention).

 

 

 

 

  • Under Article 16 of the 1996 Convention parental responsibility which exists under the law of the State of the child’s habitual residence subsists after a change of that habitual residence to another State. This is even if the State of habitual residence is a non-contracting State (Article 20).

 

 

 

 

  • Under Article 17 the exercise of parental responsibility is governed by the law of the State of the child’s habitual residence and if the child’s habitual residence changes, it is governed by the law of the State of the new habitual residence.

 

 

 

 

  • However, when considering the scope of the 1996 Convention, Article 4 makes clear it does not apply to the establishment or contesting of a parent-child relationship, decisions on adoption, measures preparatory to adoption, or the annulment or revocation of adoption or the name or forenames of the child. The combination of the Explanatory Report on the 1996 Hague Convention by Paul Lagarde (in particular paragraph 28), the revised draft practical handbook on the 1996 Convention (May 2011) (in particular paragraph 3.37) and the Practice Guide on the 1996 Convention published by the Ministry of Justice (February 2013) (in particular page 6) make clear Article 4 is to be interpreted widely and includes all aspects of the adoption process, including the placement of children for adoption.

 

 

 

 

  • It is therefore agreed by the parties that even if the father did hold parental responsibility pursuant to the operation of Article 16, by operation of Article 4 he would not be treated as a parent within the context of s 52(6) ACA 2002. Within that context the father is not treated as a father who holds parental responsibility unless he has acquired it under sections 2 or 4 Children Act 1989 (CA 1989), which this father did not.

 

 

 

 

  • The consequence is that the father in this case does not hold parental responsibility for M within the meaning of the ACA 2002, his consent to the adoption under s 47(2) ACA 2002 is not necessary and would not be required to be dispensed with under s 52 ACA 2002. He is therefore not an automatic party to the adoption application under rule 14.1 FPR 2010.

 

 

 

 

  • However, notwithstanding that an unmarried father with ‘foreign parental responsibility’ is not a father with parental responsibility for the purposes of English adoption law the provisions of rule 14.4 FPR 2010 provide as follows:

 

 

 

Notice of proceedings to person with foreign parental responsibility

14.4

(1) This rule applies where a child is subject to proceedings to which this Part applies

and –

(a) a parent of the child holds or is believed to hold parental responsibility for the child under the law of another State which subsists in accordance with Article 16 of the 1996 Hague Convention following the child becoming habitually resident in a territorial unit of the United Kingdom; and

(b) that parent is not otherwise required to be joined as a respondent under rule 14.3.

(2) The applicant shall give notice of the proceedings to any parent to whom the applicant believes paragraph (1) applies in any case in which a person who was a parent with parental responsibility under the 1989 Act would be a respondent to the proceedings in accordance with rule 14.3.

(3) The applicant and every respondent to the proceedings shall provide such details as they possess as to the identity and whereabouts of any parent they believe to hold parental responsibility for the child in accordance with paragraph (1) to the court officer, upon making, or responding to the application as appropriate.

(4) Where the existence of such a parent only becomes apparent to a party at a later date during the proceedings, that party must notify the court officer of those details at the earliest opportunity.

(5) Where a parent to whom paragraph (1) applies receives notice of proceedings, that parent may apply to the court to be joined as a party using the Part 18 procedure.

With that in mind the Court went on to consider the issue of father’s PR

  • I am satisfied the mother and step-father do not believe the father has parental responsibility under Thai law and there is a rational foundation for their belief for the reasons set out in the previous paragraphs. That belief is derived from a number of different sources and there is no suggestion that the mother and step father have done other than comply with all the relevant authorities both in Thailand and here.

 

 

  • In the light of that I do not consider the mandatory requirement for notice of these proceedings to the father applies as, in accordance the provisions of rule 14.4 (1) and (2) the applicant (in this case the step-father) does not believe the father holds ‘parental responsibility for the child under the law of another State which subsists in accordance with Article 16 of the 1996 Hague Convention following the child becoming habitually resident in a territorial unit of the United Kingdom’.

 

 

  • Even if the father does not hold foreign parental responsibility the court is still required to consider whether the father should be given notice of the application.

 

 

The High Court then looked at the case law about giving fathers notice of adoption proceedings (or not giving them notice, as the case may be). Most of these arise from ‘relinquished’ babies, where the mother seeks to give the child up for adoption but does not want the father to be informed (often there’s a short-lived relationship, or an abusive one, or the pregnancy has been concealed from the mother’s own family).  There are some gray areas at present as to whether these are thus ‘consensual’ adoptions (and Re B, B-S don’t apply) or whether because father hasn’t consented they are in reality ‘non-consensual adoptions” to which Re B and Re B-S  (the Court having to be satisfied that ‘nothing else will do’) apply.

 

[The same gray area potentially arises here, since the father was not consenting, but the mother was. The High Court don't actually resolve that gray area - not sure whether that lets the conclusion be drawn that the High Court, given they don't use 'nothing else will do' wording  means that they consider a case of THIS kind to be consensual adoption. It may not be safe to draw that conclusion, since the last paragraph indicates that having dealt with the issue of service on father not being required, the Court would go on to consider the MERITS of the application on another occasion.   Frankly, if "nothing else will do" applies to step-parent adoptions, it is hard to see how they would ever be granted.  The child is in the placement, there are other legal routes to secure parental responsibility for the step-father, how could one ever consider that 'nothing else than step-parent adoption would do'?)

 

 

  • it has long been recognised that in applications for adoption the position of the natural father who did not have parental responsibility had to be considered and a decision taken in each case whether, or not, to give him notice of the proceedings. Whether to do so should be considered on the facts of each case.

 

 

 

 

  • Re H (a child)(adoption: disclosure), Re G(a child)(adoption: disclosure) [2001] 1 FCR 726 set out that as a matter of general practice, directions should be given to inform natural fathers of such proceedings unless for good reasons the court decided it was not appropriate to do so. The issue of whether or not the father had a right to respect for family life under Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 as set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998 was important to establish. If he did then generally Article 6(1) of the Convention is engaged and there would need to be strong countervailing factors to outweigh the father’s Article 6 rights in favour of the mother’s right to private family life. Such countervailing factors may include serious domestic violence that placed the mother at serious physical risk. As the then President, Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss, observed in Re H (ibid) at para 48 ‘There may well be other situations in which a father should not be informed of the proceedings and my examples are, of course, not exhaustive’. If the father does not have any Article 8 rights the provisions of Article 6 are not engaged and notice does not need to be given, unless there is a real possibility that he might make an application under the CA 1989 which the court ought to entertain.

 

 

 

 

  • In the cases where the court is being asked to exercise its power to grant exception from the rules which require a father to be given notice the previous cases establish this power should only to be exercised in ‘highly exceptional circumstances’ (per Thorpe LJ Re AB (Care Proceedings: Service on Husband Ignorant of Child’s Existence) [2003] EWCA Civ 1842 para 3) or a ‘high degree of exceptionality is required’ (per Longmore LJ M v F [2011] EWCA Civ 273 para 25). This will depend on the court’s assessment of the risk of future harm. In M v F (ibid) para 3 Thorpe LJ stated ‘When evaluating the risk of future harm there can be no minimum requirement. The court’s first task is to identify the nature and extent of the harm in contemplation. The greater the harm the smaller need be the risk. Obviously, the risk of death may be very small, whereas the risk of turbulence in family relationships would need to be much higher.’ In assessing the likelihood of harm arising from notice of the proceedings the test to be applied is the test in Re H (minors)(Sexual Abuse: Standard of Proof) [1996] AC 563 namely ‘in the sense of a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case’.

 

 

 

 

  • There may, in reality, be little difference in the principles between these two strands of cases as a critical starting point is to establish whether or not the father has any right to family life pursuant to Article 8. It is agreed this is a question of fact and there are a number of matters for the court to consider. It has been said that the threshold for establishing family life has been set at a fairly modest level.

 

Applying the broad principles to the case, the Court heard representations about allegations of previous violence from the birth father to the mother

 

 

  • I have very carefully considered the important competing considerations in this case and I am very mindful of the general practice to inform natural fathers of applications such as this which fundamentally affect the status of a child. I have considered this aspect of the case in the context of rule 14.4 and, for the purposes of this analysis assumed this father does have foreign parental responsibility. So there is a mandatory requirement under the rules for him to be given notice of the proceedings.

 

 

 

 

  • I am considering this issue in the context of my finding that the father, for the reasons I have already explained, does not have any existing Article 8 rights. He is someone who has not sought to maintain his ties with M.

 

 

 

 

  • The wish of the mother and step-father for confidentiality is, in my judgment, an exceptional circumstance, on the facts of this case, justifying the court exercising its power to grant exception from the rules requiring the father to be given notice. The evidence based fears expressed by the mother regarding the father’s behaviour is founded on the father’s previous violent behaviour to her, M and her wider family which is supported by corroborative evidence. In my judgment there is a real possibility that if the father is informed of this application he could physically harm or threaten the mother or the wider maternal family. It is a possibility that cannot be ignored having regard to the extent of the father’s alleged violent behaviour towards the mother and her wider family in the past, in the context where the maternal family remain in the same home which is known to the father. On the particular facts of this case the balance, in my judgment, comes down in favour of the father not being notified about these proceedings, even if he could be located.

 

 

I am satisfied the Local Authority in this case does not need to take any further steps regarding the father for the reasons outlined above.

Proportionality and harm

 

Holman J has given judgment in an appeal, London Borough of Ealing v JM and Others 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1084.html

 

The appeal is not concluded (the Judge has asked for some more information about the placement proposals and family finding) and I hesitated a bit about writing at it whilst it is still ongoing, but the judgment was published, and it does raise one interesting aspect, which I don’t think we have seen the last of.

Now that the European jurisprudence about proportionality has been echoed by our Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, the underlying context to that is that when deciding whether adoption is proportionate one has to be looking to what would happen or be likely to happen to the children at home.

In this particular case, the mother tried unsuccessfully to run a “Kenneth Williams defence”   (Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me)

 

  • The sad and worrying part about this case is that, between her decision and judgment in mid July 2013 and the outcome hearing which began in late November 2013, the district judge had deliberately afforded a significant period of time within which there could, amongst other matters, be an assessment of the mother by an expert in order to try to find out why she had injured her two children in the ways described. Unfortunately, the mother did not cooperate with, or properly participate in, that assessment and therefore it is not possible to know whether she injured the children as a result of manageable stress or some other force of circumstances which could be recognised and managed in the future, or whether she did so out of, frankly, callousness or brutality. Unfortunately, the reaction of the mother to these proceedings and to the fact finding decision of the district judge in July has effectively been one of almost total denial. Instead of acknowledging and facing up to what she had done and seeking help about it, the mother adopted what the district judge was later to describe as a “conspiracy theory”. She has said and continued to say that the allegations had been fabricated; hospital documents, including photographs of the injuries, faked or forged; and she has said even that the examining doctor at the hospital is a non-existent person.

 

The part of the appeal that I am going to focus on relates to the findings of harm, and the case run by the parents that even if those findings were correct, this was not the sort of harm that justified adoption. (In effect that there are two separate thresholds – “significant harm” in the context of s31 of the Children Act,  but then the sort of significant harm which would make adoption a proportionate response).  Almost certainly what was in their mind was the finding of the original judge that the injuries to the children had been ‘relatively minor’

 

 

  • As I understand it from the judgment of the 7th January 2014, these children were living together with both their parents who were, and still are, themselves living together. In October 2012 the daughter, then aged three-and-a-quarter, said certain things at the children’s nursery which led to the children being examined first at the nursery and later at a nearby hospital. The hospital observed and recorded a number of scratches and other minor injuries on them, and the daughter gave what was described as “a vivid account” of how they had happened and blamed her mother. In the upshot, after the five-day hearing during June and July 2013, the judge concluded that the perpetrator of all the injuries was the mother. She concluded that the daughter had sustained nine minor injuries to her body, and the son had sustained five minor injuries to his body, all of which were caused non-accidentally. In other words, no less than 14 minor injuries, essentially scratches, had been deliberately caused to these two children by their mother. Additionally, and seemingly of even greater concern, the mother had caused two non-accidental -that is, deliberate – boot mark injuries to the shoulders of her daughter.

 

 

 

 

  • The district judge herself very clearly acknowledged and recognised, as had the children’s guardian, that the injuries themselves were not of a serious kind nor requiring any medical treatment. She said, at paragraph 122 of her outcome judgment of the 7th January 2014:

 

 

 

 

“The injuries … were not very serious. They were relatively minor.”

 

 

And this is how the parents developed that argument

 

As proposed ground 6 of the proposed appeal (namely at paragraph 41 of their skeleton argument for today) Mr and Mrs Haines have argued that:

 

 

“This placement order is made as a result of injuries to [the girl] which were very much on the lower end of the scale, to the extent that they did not even require any medical treatment, and it is submitted that a placement order is a disproportionate response to such injuries.” 

 

That is a point which Mrs Julie Haines further developed and submitted this afternoon. It does not, in my view, afford the slightest ground of appeal. First, as I have observed, the district judge herself was well aware that the injuries in question were not very serious and were relatively minor. Second, it is not actually correct to limit the injuries only to those to the daughter, for, as I have said, it clearly emerges from paragraph 9(1) of the outcome judgment that there were also five minor injuries to the son. So the picture here is of deliberate infliction of injury, albeit minor, to both children. Third, although overall the injuries may be described as “minor” they do include non-accidental, that is, deliberate, boot mark injuries to a girl who was at the material time aged about three. All this is evidence of a deliberately abusive attitude by a mother to both her young and vulnerable children.

 

And as you can see, Holman J, simply wasn’t convinced by that as a ground of appeal at all.   IF Re B ever gets to the European Court of Human Rights, this issue might be revisited. For the time being, crossing the threshold is sufficient, without needing a two tier significant harm test (one for orders that involve the child not being permanently separated, and one for orders that do)

Adoption breakdown research

 

A lot of people, including the House of Lords when they asked questions about the rate of adoption breakdown and found that there was no clear answer, have been wanting to see some good research on adoption breakdowns.

This is a piece of research on that very issue, commissioned by the Department for Education and conducted by Bristol university. I think it is solid.

The report opens by saying that there hasn’t previously been a national study on adoption disruptions – the previous studies have been with narrow subsets of children, leading to “rates of disruption having been quoted as ranging between 2% and 50%” (To paraphrase Paddy Power “I hear you” – I have heard over many years in Court, a wide variety of numbers being given as to how likely an adoptive placement is to break down, usually thirty seconds before a Jedi handwave and “the research is well known” – though not capable of ever being named)

There’s a LOT of it, and my summary isn’t going to be a substitute for reading it.

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/301889/Final_Report_-_3rd_April_2014v2.pdf

There’s a decent summary over at Children and Young People Now

http://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/1143367/local-authorities-underestimate-adoption-breakdowns-study-suggests

The headline there relates to the difference between the prediction Local Authorities made of the chance of a placement breaking down before the age of 18 (3.4%) and that reported by surveys of adoptive parents (which was 9%)

So, is the adoption breakdown rate about 9%? Well, maybe not. [Actually, when you sit and read the report carefully, their conclusion is that adoption breakdown rates are somewhere between 2 % and 9%. Why is the number so wide-ranging? Well, ultimately because there are actually substantial variations between Local Authorities – where Erehwon has a breakdown rate of 2% and Llareggub has 9% - is the breakdown rate between the middle, or is it more accurate to say that nationally it is BETWEEN those figures?]

The research is looking at adoptions where an order has been made, and whether the placement continued until the child was 18, or ended (which is then classed as a breakdown or disruption, for whatever reason)

It looks at the previous research – Rushton 2003 which cited a breakdown rate of 20%, but that covered placements pre order, and obviously had a number where the placement ended after a very short period because the ‘fit’ wasn’t right , and Rushton and Dance 2006 (Although no lawyer actually knows the name of it or what it really says, this is the piece of research that gives the figure that has been bandied about and exaggerated over the last few years) that gave a figure of 19% – the study had been entirely of children who had been placed for adoption later in life than the norm.
An interesting aspect, to me, is the comparison the research does of 3 types of placements and their stability (frustratingly for me, there isn’t the comparison of stability of adoption v long-term foster care, which would now be extremely helpful to know)

The research says that they looked at:-

 

•37,314 Adoption Orders of which 565 were known to have disrupted
5,921 Special Guardianship Orders of which 121 were known to have disrupted
• 5,771 Residence Orders of which 415 were known to have disrupted
Peculiarly, although the research highlights that SGOs were anticipated to largely replace Residence Orders, the number of Residence Orders doesn’t seem to have gone down since their introduction.

I did my own number crunching on that, which worked out as a breakdown rate of 1.5% for adoptions, 2% for SGOs and 7% for residence orders.
So is THAT the breakdown rate?

Well no, it gets a bit more complicated (because the individual cases they were looking at were at different ages – to exaggerate wildly – if you imagine the residence orders were mostly dealing with teenagers and the adoptions mostly with pre-schoolers, then of course one group has had more chance to break down. Wild exaggeration, just so that you get the underlying concept, that some complicated maths has to be done to smooth out the differences)

Breakdown (or disruption) rate
The research says that over a 5 year period
•147 in 1,000 ROs would have disrupted (14.7%)

57 in 1,000 SGOs would have disrupted (5.7%)

•7 in 1,000 adoptions would have disrupted (0.7%)

And that over a five year period, the most stable form of placement was comfortably an adoptive placement.
But of course, a five year period isn’t necessarily it for adoptions – the research demonstrates that the most precarious time in an adoptive placement is in the teenage years , and that over a 12 year period the disruption rate went up to 3.2%.

The researchers suggest that by the time 1000 children who have been adopted reach the age of 18, those placements will have been disrupted or broken down for between 2 and 9% of them (i.e between 20 and 90 children – the corollary of that, obviously is that for every 1000 children placed for adoption somewhere between 910 and 980 of them will have placements that endure for their childhood)

Of those disruptions, nearly two thirds will be during the child’s secondary school years, with the average age of a child whose placement breaks down being 12 ½.
Influences

When looking at what influences a disruption, the research found that for children placed with adopters before the age of 4, only 1% of those placements had broken down. For children aged over 4 at the time of the placement, that went up to 5%. Three quarters of the children who had an adoption breakdown had been placed after the age of four.

Additionally, the more moves a child had had prior to the adoptive placement, the higher the chance of disruption. And the longer a child waited for a placement, the higher the chance of disruption – of the children whose placements had broken down, three quarters of them had waited for more than two years for a placement.

 

There is no real difference in terms of gender of the child as to whether a disruption is more or less likely (1.4% of all males placed had breakdowns, 1.7% of all females – a slight difference, but not statistically important – anecdotally it is mildly surprising that this is not the other way around). Nor was ethnicity a relevant factor in breakdown rates.

The reason for the child coming into care makes very little difference to the breakdown rates either.

Looking at the types of carer, the research SUGGESTS that single carers had a higher proportion of disruptions than would be predicted by pure averages, but are cautious about this because the data isn’t as full (the information about whether an adopter is married or in a civil partnership has only been collected since 2006)

The research also suggests that foster carers who go on to adopt the child don’t have (as many professionals would suspect or believe) lower disruption rates than stranger adoptions – if anything, it is slightly the other way. [The research points out that it may be more likely that foster carers who adopt are taking more damaged children than the statistical norm, that children have usually waited longer to be adopted if their foster carers adopt them and that foster carers who adopt might suffer more than stranger adopters when the LA backs off]
The percentage of adoption disruptions varied significantly between the Local Authorities sampled – from 0.7% to 7.4% (it is figure 20, page 55 of the research if you want to look at it).

Really hard, obviously, to unpick whether that is because of something that the LA’s are doing (picking adopters, supporting them, managing dramas) or whether it is that in any particular LA one has a higher proportion of older children, who wait longer in care. If it is the former, then we really want to get all of the Local Authorities learning from the best ones, because every single breakdown is a human tragedy for all involved.

 

•Between April 1st 2000 and 31st March 2011, 37,335 children were adopted and of these 565 were known to have disrupted post order and information was available in the database.
• Nearly two thirds of disruptions occurred during the teenage years.
• Gender and ethnicity were not associated with greater risk of disruption.
• The children whose adoptions had disrupted were significantly older at entry to care (average 3 years old) in comparison with children (average 1 year old) whose adoptions were intact. Nearly three-quarters of all the children had been abused or neglected.
• Children who had experienced a disruption also had significantly more moves whilst looked after and waited longer to be placed with their adoptive family compared with those children whose placements were intact.
• Children who were no longer living with their adoptive families were significantly more likely to have lengthier adoption processes compared with the children whose adoptions were intact. This was the case for those who entered care under the age of 4 years old and those who entered over 4 years of age.
• Three-quarters of the children who experienced a disruption were older than 4 years of age at placement with their adoptive family and a quarter were younger than 4 years of age. In comparison, 70% of children in intact placements were under the age of four.
• Children whose foster carers became their adoptive parents entered care at a similarly young age to those who were adopted by stranger adoptive parents. However, they waited on average two years before their foster placement was confirmed as an adoptive placement and were on average 5.2 years old at the time of the Adoption Order. In comparison, those adopted by strangers were only 3.8 years old at the time of the Order.
• Foster carer adoptions were not more stable than adoptions by stranger adoptive parents.
• The proportion of adoptions that disrupted varied by local authority

 

This is a bit that is fairly low key and probably won’t be picked up by the press reports, but I think is very important

 

“We asked adoptive parents whether there had ever been any difficulties with birth family contact through SMS, email or Facebook. Whilst 20% said this had been the case, many more feared that they would be facing these problems in the future”

 

If you wanted to find a person in the 1980s, you had to hire a private detective. Now, if you spend an hour on the net, you’ll know more about them than their own mother.

I think there are really good bits in the research dealing with how various local authorities dealt with requests for help from adopters, and some very honest and raw interviews where things that are normally unspoken were said out loud – the shame, the guilt, how hard it is to ask for help, and on the other side, how social workers can sometimes present as being very intolerant of the need for help and that the adopters took this child on and they just had to make it work. Many requests for help ended up being managed as s47 investigations, which escalated things badly.

There are some major criticisms of life story work (particularly about these books not being moved forward and age-appropriate for much older children, at the point where they really want to know more about their identity)
Conclusion

 
We began this study knowing very little about adoption disruption. To our knowledge, there had never been a funded study in the UK whose focus was on disruptions post order. The disruption rate was lower than we expected. The reasons for that became obvious when we met the families. The commitment and tenacity of adoptive parents was remarkable. Most parents, even those whose children had left, still saw themselves as the child’s parents and were supporting their children from a distance. An adoption manager who was interviewed for this study suggested that perhaps a revolving door approach was needed for some adopted adolescents, whereby they could spend time away from their families without it being seen as a failure. Instead, most of the families we interviewed spoke of an ‘all or nothing’ social work approach that blamed and judged parents when relationships were just not working, and parents needed respite or young people wanted to leave. A key value150 of social work in professional practice is compassion and respect for individuals. It is probably easier to practice if there is a clear duality of victim and abuser. Who was the victim and who was the abuser was unclear in families where there was child to parent violence. Splits and conflicts between children’s social workers and post adoption social workers then emerged. It left adoptive parents feeling blamed, demoralised and unsupported. It was apparent that many had lost faith in professionals of all kinds and felt betrayed.

The research makes a number of recommendations – they cover 6 pages in the report, starting at page 284, so I won’t rehearse them, but they are well worth reading, particularly for any professional involved in adoption work.

 

 

 

Foster to adopt

Another bite-sized nibble at the Children and Families Act 2014.  [Warning, post contains both Minnie and Moaning]

 

The more I dig into this Act, the more troubled I become. It may be that an Act that tries to resolve family justice, educational special needs, granting licences for performing children, allowing the Chief Inspector to enter a home and seize documents and take photographs if he believes a person is unlawfully pretending to be a childminding agency, repeals the no-fault divorce provisions of the Family Justice Act that never got commenced,  employment rights for parents, whether you can smoke in your car if children are present, legislates on the shape size and texture of cigarette packets (and how you might open them), and whether it should be unlawful to sell nicotine gum or e-cigarettes to children MIGHT, I only say MIGHT, have spread itself a little too thin.

 [I’m not exaggerating, this stuff is genuinely in the Act. It’s a Children Act, an Education Act, an Employment Act, a Tax Act and a Health Act all squidged into one place]

 Today I’m looking at section 2, which is a new provision in the Children and Families Act relating to the duty on Local Authorities to consider and prioritise “foster to adopt” placements for children.

 

A “foster to adopt” placement is a foster carer who takes on the care of a child as a foster carer, but who is approved as an adopter, and who thus could move on to adopt the child if the Court’s final decision is that adoption is the right solution for the child. 

 

With anything, there are pros and cons. Here are some (list exhausting, but not exhaustive) :-

 

 

Pros  – it means that if the child does need to be adopted, the child moves once and only once (from the parent into a permanent placement). It means that the child is not waiting and forming an attachment with the foster carer only to lose that relationship.

 

It avoids delay in a permanent placement being found. It gives the Court when making final decisions a degree of confidence that a placement has been found and tested and that it works for the child. It gets approved adopters practical experience with caring for the child before making that huge commitment. It might help parents to know that the child is with someone that the child knows rather than there being a big mystery about where the child will be placed and when.

 

Cons – It can produce a feeling of fait accompli, that before the Court makes any decisions about the case that the child is already in an ‘adoptive’ placement just waiting for the rubber stamp. It can lead to adopters (already a scarce resource) bonding and connecting to a child only for the child to be rehabilitated – which is after all, the starting point in all care proceedings – how big an emotional turmoil would that be? In turn, does this lead to the carer keeping the child at ‘arms-length’ until the Court’s decision is made?

 

Is this a proper “matching process” or do you end up with a very superficial matching process? Does that lead to increased risk of breakdowns later on? It could lead to a placement for foster-to-adopt being made before a viable family member comes forward and then the child not being placed with that family member. Is there a conflict of interest in evidential terms – i.e if the foster carer hopes to adopt the child, how confident can the Court be when the foster carer reports that the child has nightmares after contact or never talks about missing mummy?  The risk of the address coming out is greatly increased, as during the care proceedings documents are produced and circulated and it only takes one slip for an address that should be redacted not to be.

 

Most importantly, does having a ready made adoptive placement for the child end up tempting the Court into making the wrong comparisons when making their final decision – rather than looking at whether the parent is good enough do professionals and the Court get seduced into comparing what the child’s life would be like with these adopters versus going home?   

 

And  of course in light of Re B-S, how confident can one be that the Court, even if approving that the child should live with these carers would want to do it under adoption rather than fostering or SGO  – doesn’t that raise the spectre of the foster-to-adopt carer being asked that specific question in evidence?  

[I think you would need to be very transparent in recruiting foster-to-adopt carers that there is a very real possibility that the Court, even if the placement with them is sanctioned, might want to do this under SGO or Care Order rather than adoption, and that they might find themselves drawn into care proceedings]

 

Another difficult issue is what this means for sibling groups – if you have a group of children and one is aged 8 and one is aged 2, should the two year old be put in a foster-to-adopt placement and separated from the other, or is it more important for them to be together?   [As we will see later on in this piece, if the s22 (9A) duty is triggered, that removes entirely the provisions in the Act that say that it is better for siblings to be together. That doesn't feel right to me - if there's a presumption about which is best "being in a placement where you might get adopted" or "being with your brother"  I have a different view to the Act about which way the presumption should go]

 

It is hard to try to balance the pros and cons as an overall philosophy – it depends on your perspective and stance, and whether what is more important is justice and justice being seen to be done or minimising disruption and delay for a child.  Perhaps it is the right solution for some cases, some children.

 

[I am not actually averse to concurrency placements and think that they represent a good option to have available for some cases, I am troubled by the clunkiness of how this has been rolled-out though]

 

I know that the Family Rights Group have been very concerned about the provisions, and I share some of their concerns  – they did a great job in highlighting them, sadly they weren’t listened to- I’m not convinced that the ramifications of this legislation has been thought through 

 

You can read Cathy Ashley’s piece in Community Care here.

 

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/03/19/potential-injustices-likely-arise-children-families-act/ 

 

All of the complaints that Cathy makes in that piece are legitimate and she is right that interested groups were making these points when the draft legislation was published. The ills they identified have not been remedied.

 

But what I want to do in this piece is to consider WHEN the actual duty arises   (and in turn, what happens when it does)

 

Children and Families Act 2014

 

2 Placement of looked after children with prospective adopters

(1) Section 22C of the Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.

 

 (2) In subsection (7), after “subject to” insert “subsection (9B) and”.

 

(3) After subsection (9) insert—

 

“(9A) Subsection (9B) applies (subject to subsection (9C)) where the local authority are a local authority in England and—

(a) are considering adoption for C, or

(b) are satisfied that C ought to be placed for adoption but are not authorised under section 19 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (placement with parental consent) or by virtue of section 21 of that Act (placement orders) to place C for adoption.

 

(9B) Where this subsection applies—

(a) subsections (7) to (9) do not apply to the local authority,

(b) the local authority must consider placing C with an individual within subsection (6)(a), and

(c) where the local authority decide that a placement with such an individual is not the most appropriate placement for C, the local authority must consider placing C with a local authority foster parent who has been approved as a prospective adopter.

 

(9C) Subsection (9B) does not apply where the local authority have applied for a placement order under section 21 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 in respect of C and the application has been refused.”

 

 

That’s rather a mouthful, but in essence

 

Where the Local Authority are considering adoption for the child OR are satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption   AND if they are not satisfied that a placement with a relative is the most appropriate placement for the child, they must consider a placement with a foster carer who has been approved as an adopter

 

That seems to me to be two separate circumstances

 

S22 (9A) (a) The Local Authority are considering adoption for the child

 

Or

 

22 (9A) (b) The Local Authority are satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption

 

 

I’ll deal with  22 (9A) (b) first, because although it is more complicated it is also easier (if that makes sense) because there’s an answer to WHEN a Local Authority are satisfied that the child ought to be placed for adoption.

 

That comes from s22 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which says that when a Local Authority is satisfied that a child OUGHT to be placed for adoption they MUST make a Placement Order application.

 

We know that a Local Authority cannot make a Placement Order application until they have a decision from their Agency Decision Maker that adoption is the plan for the child AND that they are authorised to make an application for a Placement Order.

 

Deep breath – therefore 22 (9A)(b) Children Act 1989 can be a duty that is ONLY triggered once the Local Authority have permission from the Agency Decision Maker to apply for a Placement Order. 

 

That would normally be at around the time that the Local Authority file their final evidence, and thus about 8 weeks away from a final hearing.  I think it is extremely unlikely that a Court would endorse moving a child from an existing foster placement into a Foster to Adopt placement 8 weeks before a final hearing, unless the parents are in full agreement.  So, I just don’t think that this will actually happen in practice.

 

 

HOWEVER

 

S22 (9A) (a) is a different matter. In effect, this means that if a Local Authority is considering adoption for the child and do not consider that placing with a relative is the most appropriate placement for the child, they must consider placing with a foster parent who is an approved adopter

 

Two distinct limbs of the test there

 

(1)   Are the Local Authority considering adoption for the child

 

How do you decide whether the Local Authority is considering adoption for the child? Are they considering this once all of the evidence is in, or is the fact that they are considering it as a possibility mean that the first limb of the test is met?   Are we getting into territory of whether they are REASONABLE in considering adoption for the child?

 

As the Family Rights Group have raised, this does create the spectre that a Local Authority who are fostering the child under a voluntary (s20) arrangement, long before the case goes to Court or the parents have legal advice, can say that they are “considering” adoption and thus have a duty to place in a foster to adopt placement.

 

(2)   The LA do not consider that placing with a relative is the most appropriate placement for the child . 

 

 

Okay, this is really important, because what this is a DIFFERENT test about placing a child with a relative.

 

The usual test

 

S22 C (7) Children Act 1989  means that a placement with a relative, friend or other person connected to the child MUST be given priority     (and thus a child will only not get placed in a family placement if the circumstances in s22C (4) are made out – that the placement is not reasonably practicable or would not be consistent with the child’s welfare)

 

Won’t apply if the LA are ‘considering’ adoption under s22 (9A)  In those circumstances, it seems that the LA can discount the placement with the relative if they think that it is “not the most appropriate placement for the child”  

 

A different quality of test.  S22C means that unless there are compelling reasons, the placement with the family member is better than foster care, and s22 9B (c) means that the LA don’t have to place with a relative unless they consider that this is the ‘most appropriate placement’   – that’s an entirely different character of test, and it is unlocked by the Jedi-hand-wave of “we’re considering adoption”

 

 

Also, WHEN is it that the LA “do not consider that placing with a relative is the most appropriate placement”?   Is it at the outset of the case, when it might be that they want to conduct an assessment first and say they can’t place until that assessment is done?  (Does THAT trigger the duty to place in a foster to adopt placement?)   OR is it after that assessment is done?

 

At the moment, the wording is so loose that it appears that if the child is being placed away from the parent under voluntary accommodation, and the child is under six, the LA would be ‘considering adoption’  and can thus decide that a foster-to-adopt placement is more appropriate than placement with a relative, and also separate the child from a sibling.  And not only CAN do it, but it appears that they have a duty to consider it.

 

I’m not suggesting that Local Authorities would do this willy-nilly or capriciously, but the point of legislation is to provide safeguards as well as powers, and this doesn’t have much. (It only takes one bad LA or one bad social worker)

 

 

IF a Local Authority were to do that, it can be argued that they are just following the duties pushed onto them by the Act.

 

[A simple solution to this would be for the LA to say that they have a duty to CONSIDER it, they have CONSIDERED it and are not going to do it as a result of the wider context of the case. That might be the angle that is taken in most cases, but it depends to an extent on whether the particular Local Authority is keen to push foster-to-adopt and has such carers available]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other worrying thing is that if s229A (a) is met, s22C (7) –(9) do not apply.

 

 

(9B) Where this subsection applies—

(a) subsections (7) to (9) do not apply to the local authority,

 

What those cover are :-

 

That the placement should be within the Local Authority’s area 

That the placement allows the child to live near their original home

That if the child is disabled the accommodation provided is suitable for the child’s needs

That the placement doesn’t disrupt the child’s education or training

That if the child has a sibling, it enables the child and the sibling to live together

 

 

The implication of this is, that if the LA are considering adoption and aren’t placing with a relative, their DUTY is to consider a foster to adopt placement EVEN though this would mean separating the siblings – the foster to adopt takes priority over siblings.

 

 

Given that ‘considering adoption’ triggers these duties (which can involve not placing with a relative because it is not the ‘most appropriate’ placement, and separating siblings) it seems a glaring omission that such a powerful test is not defined properly.

 

I also think that placing in foster to adopt is such an important issue that the Act ought to have said that this can be done only with either  the permission of the existing holders of parental responsibility or the permission of the Court.  That would have cut through most of the worries.

 

 

Without this provision, one is looking to the Court to be the safeguard check and balance. It will be the Court who would be endorsing the care plan put before them. The Court would be taking account of the fact that the Local Authority’s duty is to seek a foster to adopt placement even though that means separating brothers or sisters, but the Court is not bound to prioritise foster to adopt above siblings being together.  (that priority setting bites on the Local Authority, not the Court)

 

I suspect that the Court would want to tell the Local Authority that their plan to place one child in a foster to adopt placement and another child in a separate foster placement (because one is young enough for them to be ‘considering’ adoption, and the other is not) is not approved and to change it if they want their Interim Care Order.

 

 

However, that then gets into territory of a wholly different kind, because the Children and Families Act 2014 also changes the role of the Court in scrutinising care plans

 

S15 Children and Families Act 2014

 

(1) For section 31(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (no care order to be made until court has considered section 31A care plan) substitute—

“(3A) A court deciding whether to make a care order—

(a) is required to consider the permanence provisions of the section 31A plan for the child concerned, but

(b) is not required to consider the remainder of the section 31A

plan, subject to section 34(11).

(3B) For the purposes of subsection (3A), the permanence provisions of a section 31A plan are such of the plan’s provisions setting out the long term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following—

(a) the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b) adoption;

(c) long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

The argument here, I think, would be that whilst the Court is not REQUIRED to consider in the care plan whether the siblings are together, they are not PROHIBITED from doing so. 

[Or being very creative, saying that siblings are including within section 31 (3B) (a)  since you are deciding whether the child can live with  any member of the child's family - it says 'live with' not  'be cared for by']

 

Finally, if you are interested, having a child placed with you in a foster-to-adopt placement doesn’t trigger any adoption leave entitlement that exists in other legislation, until the child is actually formally placed for adoption (that’s tucked away in s121 of the Children and Families Act 2014)

If you can’t do what you’re told, the Minister will take your role away from you

 

A bit more dissection of the Children and Families Act 2014 (or perhaps autopsy is a better word)

This is the provision in the Act, brought in without much fanfare, without pickets or protests, but it might end up being significant

section 4 of the CFA 2014 makes an amendment to the Adoption and Children Act 2002, giving the Secretary of State (that would be the Education Minister, i.e Michael Gove at present) the power to take the functions of the adoption agency away from a particular Local Authority and give those functions to another adoption agency. These powers kick in from 1st March 2015.

Well, that’s the stick to beat Local Authorities with when the adoption targets get published and they are not doing what Michael Gove wanted them to do. Given the upheaval in adoption law in 2013 which is still rippling through the system, it would be rather a surprise if the next batch of figures weren’t full of delays because of the volume of appeals and cases being adjourned and evidence resubmitted to avoid appeals. I think most people were expecting that at some point after the legal tables were publised, a Local Authority would be singled out and have their adoption agency functions taken off them.

What is rather more surprising is the next power, which will be a new section 3A (2) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002

The Secretary of State may by order require all local authorities in England to make arrangements for all or any of their functions within subsection (3) to be carried out on their behalf by one or more other adoption agencies.

(Subsection 3 set out that those functions are recuitment of adopters, assessment and approval of adopters, and matching of adopters to children.  Please, anti-adoption campaigners, don’t get over excited and think that this means that the bit you really have a problem with – social workers being able to RECOMMEND adoption for a child and seek orders to achieve that, is going to be taken off social workers, it doesn’t mean that at all. This is about the bit that happens AFTER the Courts have made the orders, and relates to finding the right people to provide permanent homes for children)

If you have missed the significant word in s3A(2) it is ALL.   The Secretary of State can, at any time after March 2015, with no parliamentary scrutiny or approval, decide that the assessment of adopters and matching of children with adopters won’t be done by Local Authorities any more, take it off all of them and give it to other adoption agencies.

That would be, presumably to independent Voluntary Adoption Agencies. There are around fifty of those in England – some are Catholic societies, some regional agencies and of course agencies like Barnardos. These organisations do a great job and fill a valuable role, and I am not knocking them or the quality of their work. But doing what they do, and doing it well, doesn’t mean that they are in a position to take ALL of the adoption work that is being done by individual Local Authorities at present.

And what do you do if you move it all over, disband all of the Local Authorities teams and staff and local knowledge and expertise, to deliver better stats, and the stats don’t get any better ?

(not that this would happen of course, because the private sector has a flawless record of taking over public sector functions and delivering them on time, to budget, with no loss of quality. IT projects, cleaning hospitals without incubating MRSA, building schools, private prisons, security for the Olympics, consultancy that states the bleeding obvious. I could name the companies who do such sterling work, but you can read about them for yourself in almost every edition of Private Eye)

There’s nothing said about the circumstances in which Michael Gove or his successors might exercise this massive power.  Luckily we can take it as read that no Government Minister ever has, or ever would, take measures for political gain without serious regard for the consequences.

There’s nothing in the section about TUPE either – the general provision of TUPE is that if the functions transfer, so do the staff  (this in very broad terms, I’m not an employment lawyer and would not attempt to give employment law advice).  Not sure how that works if the Voluntary Adoption Agency  (a term that I can already sense is making blood boil over in Monaco) is based three hundred miles away.  There’s also nothing in there about procurement – if the Government is going to dish out juicy contracts for public sector work to a variety of private sector agencies, there has to be a proper tendering process for the distribution of those contracts, in line with European procurement rules.

Seems a bit odd to me that the Government boast in the press releases to the Act that it will speed up justice for children and allow decisions to be reached faster, but are only prepared to wait a year to see how those changes bed in and affect the pace at which children who the Courts have approved for adoption are being found places.  Also slightly odd that the assessment of adoption support plans and management of those budgets isn’t included in the functions that would transfer over.

 

 

 

 

 

Obtaining a fresh assessment late in proceedings

Re Z (A Child : Independent Social Work Assessment) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/729.html

My compliments to the Judge for giving this a meaningful case name that allows people to find it in the future.

This one was a judgment given in March 2014, for care proceedings arising out of injuries to a child that occurred in September and October 2012. The proceedings were into week 72.  The father applied for a fresh independent social work assessment, and also sought a fresh assessment of the paternal grandmother, challenging the negative viability.

If you are at the moment, thinking, meh, I know how this one ends up – I’ll give you a spoiler.  He gets the assessments.

Ah, now you want to know more…

    1. In any case in which a local authority applies to the court for a care order, the assessment of a parent is of critical importance. That assessment will be a key piece of the evidential jigsaw which informs the local authority’s decision-making, in particular with respect to the formulation of its final care plan. If the assessment is deficient then that is likely to undermine the reliability of the decision-making process. It follows, therefore, that any assessment of a parent must be, and must be seen to be, fair, robust and thorough.

 

    1. Was RD’s assessment of the father fair, robust and thorough? In my judgment it was not. In arriving at that conclusion I bear the following factors in mind. They are not ranked in any particular order:

 

(1) The assessment undertaken by RD was a social work assessment and not a parenting assessment. No parenting assessment of the father has been undertaken. His ability to acquire the skills needed to enable him to care for Z have not been assessed.

(2) To the extent that RD’s observation of contact and reading the contact supervisor’s notes have informed her assessment, the clear evidence is that that contact was positive and that the father was able to learn and apply new skills. He was cooperative and teachable. Despite this the local authority declined either to increase the level of contact or provide him with any form of training to enable him to meet Z’s care needs (unlike the foster carer for whom training has been provided).

(3) Not only has the local authority failed to undertake a parenting assessment it has also failed to give any consideration to the support the father would need in order to care for Z or what support and assistance the local authority is able to offer.

(4) The father is criticised for lack of understanding and insight yet his knowledge of Z’s injuries and prognosis comes not from copies of the relevant reports translated into Punjabi but from having some of those reports – or more likely some parts of those reports – read to him in Punjabi. To this must be added the local authority’s failure to give the father opportunity to meet with any of the health care professionals responsible for Z’s care.

(5) The local authority’s social work assessment proceeded on the assumption that the father wished to return to India and care for Z there. Whilst I acknowledge that some of the things the father said may reasonably have led the local authority to that belief, I am equally satisfied that that is not his position. This is not the only issue in this case in which something has been lost in translation.

(6) The local authority appears to have assumed that a care plan for adoption automatically means that post-adoption contact should be limited to letter-box contact only. It has not given any consideration either to the benefits for Z of contact continuing or, as part of its assessment of the father, what the father has to offer to Z through ongoing direct contact. Whereas the guardian has begun to reconsider her position on contact there is no evidence that the local authority has begun to do so.

  1. I am satisfied that the local authority’s assessment of this father falls short of the standard required.

 

Fair, robust and thorough seems like a good test in appraising the evidence – I expect to see others make use of this test   (whether this authority is binding or not is tricky – but it is a High Court case, so it is at least persuasive)

 

One major part of father’s case was this :-

 

108. As a result of the negative outcome of the social work assessment, on 31st January 2014 the father issued an application for permission to instruct an independent social worker to undertake a parenting assessment. The father complains that the social worker ‘failed to approach the assessment with an open mind’ for which submission he relies on the fact that the social worker informed the LAC review on 12th December 2013 that the outcome of her assessment was negative even though the assessment was still ongoing.

 

If father was able to establish that, which one would hope would be confirmed or refuted by the LAC review minutes, that is fatal to the LA’s opposition to an independent assessment. This is not announcing the outcome when all that is left is to finish dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in the written report , this was a final view of the outcome of the assessment given whilst it still had six weeks to run.

 

Unhelpfully

    1. The minutes of the LAC review held on 12th December note that,

 

‘Social Worker RD is carrying out 6 assessment sessions with [the father] 5 have been completed. The assessment is negative. He denies any knowledge of the injuries or reasons she was harmed, he has very limited understanding of her health and overall prognosis. He does not understand the impact of the brain damage. He has no clear plan – originally he said his mother would help out in India, then his sister. It is assessed he is not considering Z’s best interests. All professionals shared these concerns. Becky will inform [the father] of the outcome of the assessment and will file the statement by 8.1.14.’

    1. Although the father attended the LAC review he was not permitted to be present throughout the whole of the discussions. He was not present when RD told the meeting that her assessment of him was negative. He was not present when the decision was taken that the local authority’s plan for Z should be one of adoption.

 

    1. The minutes of the LAC review have little to say about contact: ‘Supervised contact takes place twice a week during the assessment period. Z has been fine before and after contact’. If that is an accurate reflection of the information given to the members of the LAC review then it is woefully lacking. The social worker said that she ‘was not asked’ to provide the Review with evidence relating to contact. Given that contact was extremely positive for Z one would have expected the LAC review to have been informed of this and that it would have considered how contact might develop. This is a requirement of the Care Planning Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 ['the Regulations']. Schedule 7 sets out the considerations to which the responsible authority must have regard when reviewing a child’s case. Schedule 7 paragraph 4 requires the LAC review to consider

 

‘The arrangements for contact and whether there is any need for changes to the arrangements in order to promote contact between [the child and her parents].’

  1. The social worker was asked whether the minutes of the LAC review provided an accurate summary of what was discussed. She confirmed that they do, though she went on to describe them as ‘brief’. The minutes have been signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer. There is space for them to be counter-signed by the social worker. In this case the social worker confirmed that the minutes had been sent to her for approval and signing. She had not responded. She has not signed them. She said that she does not routinely sign minutes of LAC meetings.

The Judge’s comments on LAC reviews, that arise from those failings, are also ones that I expect to see crop up in other cases

    1. LAC meetings are very important meetings. That that is so is made very clear by the Regulations. The records of such meetings are also important. Regulation 38 provides that,

 

“The responsible authority must ensure that a written record of the review is prepared, and that the information obtained in the course of the review, details of proceedings at the review meeting, and any decision made in the course of, or as a result, of the review are included in C’s case records.”

  1. It should be apparent from the minutes of a LAC meeting that the meeting has considered each of the matters which the Regulations require the meeting to consider. The minutes should be balanced. So far as the parents’ relationship with the child is concerned, they should identify any positive points as well as any negative points. Although there is no requirement in the regulations for minutes to be signed, as a matter of good practice it is clearly appropriate that they should be signed. They should be signed by the Independent Reviewing Officer and by the allocated social worker, if present at the meeting, and if not present then by the most senior social worker present at the meeting. Their signatures provide the assurance that the minutes give an accurate and balanced account of the matters discussed at the meeting.

 

Assessment of paternal grandmother next

    1. That leads me back, finally, to what the local authority describes as a viability assessment of PGM. For the reasons set out earlier in this judgment I regard that assessment as inadequate. The notion that a Punjabi speaking grandmother living in India, expressing a clear interest in being assessed as a long-term carer for her granddaughter, not having been provided with any of the background papers translated into Punjabi, can be ruled out on the basis of two telephone conversations one of which was conducted by a Hindi speaking English social worker, is in my judgment wholly unsupportable.

 

    1. Re M-H (Assessment: Father of Half-Brother) [2007] 2 FLR 1715 concerned an application for a viability assessment. The judge at first instance had described the local authority’s viability assessment of the father of the subject child’s half-brother as “wholly inadequate” and “flawed”. The judge nonetheless declined to order a full independent assessment. In the Court of Appeal, giving the leading judgment, Wall LJ (as he then was) said that,

 

‘the exercise of a judicial discretion in a care case is an amalgam of expertise from a number of disciplines, an essential part of which is or should be competent social work assessments which the judge can then appraise and accept or reject….Accordingly, in my judgment, to do proper justice to [the child's] interests in the instant case, the judge required the thorough independent social work input by means of a viability assessment which [the appellant] had sought. The judge denied himself that input whilst at the same time recognising that the local authority had failed to provide it.’

  1. Z’s care needs require support from a multi-disciplinary team of health care professionals. Is there any possibility that a similar package of support could be available in India? If the answer to that question is ‘no’ then it seems to me that notwithstanding PGM’s offer to care for Z and the duty on the local authority pursuant to s.17 Children Act 1989 to promote the upbringing of Z by her family, it would be difficult to argue that a move to India would be in Z’s best welfare interests. However, making that point simply serves to highlight the fact that the court does not, at present, have sufficient evidence to enable it to make that judgment. There needs to be a proper assessment of PGM. Any such assessment also needs to identify and consider the services that would be available to meet Z’s care needs in India. These are now issues for further case management.

 

And the Judge wasn’t finished – given that the Local Authority care plan was for the current foster carers to adopt, he felt that their Re B-S analysis was badly flawed – it had not properly taken into account that such a placement could be under a Care Order (fostering) or a Special Guardianship Order and why those options should be discounted in favour of adoption. He made it plain that even if the independent assessments of father and grandmother weren’t positive, this case was a considerable distance from being “then adoption is the right plan”

136 My decision to allow the father’s application for leave to instruct an Independent Social Worker means that it is unnecessary and inappropriate, at this stage, to go on to consider the local authority’s final care plan. However, it is appropriate that I should make the point that it should not be assumed that if the assessment of the father is negative then that, without more, will lead to endorsement of the present final care plan. Even leaving to one side the local authority’s flawed assessment of the father, it is plain that the current final care plan is deficient. For example, it does not consider and analyse realistic alternatives to adoption (long term foster care, special guardianship); it does not consider whether it is appropriate for Z to remain in a placement in which there is a changing population of children in short term foster care; it assumes that post-adoption letter-box contact is appropriate without making any attempt to consider whether ongoing direct contact would better meet Z’s needs; it proposes by way of contingency plan that if the placement with FC breaks down it will search for an alternative adoptive placement even though it acknowledges that it is highly unlikely that an alternative adoptive placement could be found. These are all issues which must be addressed. The local authority has more work to do before this case can fairly be concluded.

 

I can’t quite find from the judgment what the timescales for the further assessment are, and obviously those assessments will need to be considered, final evidence filed from all parties and a final hearing take place. It probably amounts to a final hearing taking place at around week 90, or week 100.

 

But that is palpably and manifestly the right thing to do, to get the RIGHT answer.

I do worry that now that the Children and Families Act 2014 will lock Judges into 26 weeks, or an extension of 8 weeks, whether cases like this will get their proper determination.

Legal aid for section 51 applications – contact post adoption

Forgive me for this, because it is going to be dryer than eating a packet of Jacob’s Cream Crackers in the Gobi desert, but it is potentially important, and might save someone else an hour of slogging through law to find the answer.

 

“Can you, or your clients,  get legal aid to help you make an application for post adoption contact, when the section 51 provisions come into force?”

 

 

If you haven’t read the preceding blog, none of this s51 stuff will make any sense, so you might want to do that first.

 

There’s a bit tucked away in the Children and Families Act 2014, that specifies that there are some changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act  2012  (LASPO).

 

Why does that matter? Well, because LASPO is what decides whether a person can get legal aid to make their application 

 

[It also probably has the unique distinction of being a piece of legislation that every English lawyer can agree about hating. Usually, even if an Act comes in that is stupid and frustrating, say the “Hairdryers – Prohibition against making them out of Ice Act 2009”  you can find a couple of lawyers who made some money out of training on it, or suing someone for breaching the Act, or defending someone accused of breaching it.  This one, everyone hates. And you can’t even think – well, I’m diametrically opposed to everything that LASPO stands for, but I can still admire it as a beautifully crafted and mechanically sound piece of drafting. It isn’t that, either]

 

This is what s9 (12) of Children and Families Act 2014 says:-

 

 

(12) In Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of

Offenders Act 2012 (civil legal services)—

(a) in paragraph 12(9) (victims of domestic violence and family matters), in

the definition of “family enactment” after paragraph (o) insert—

“(p) section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act

2002 (post-adoption contact orders).”, and

(b) in paragraph 13(1) (protection of children and family matters) after

paragraph (f) insert—

“(g) orders under section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (post-adoption contact).”

 

[The Children and Families Act 2014 is no Mona Lisa of the drafting world, either, to be frank]

 

Which brings the potential that section 51 applications MIGHT be eligible for legal aid.

 

Under LASPO, there are two distinct categories

 

1)     Cases which are within scope, and will be funded if there is means and merits to the application, but are the SORT of cases that in principle that legal aid can be given for  (those are ones that are contained in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of LASPO, so you can see that there is POTENTIAL for s51 applications

 

2)     Cases that are not within scope, but MIGHT be funded if the Legal Aid agree that there are exceptional circumstances that justify it  (in practice, no chance)

 

 

You find that explicitly in LASPO, though written in oblique language

 

9 General cases

(1)Civil legal services are to be available to an individual under this Part if—

(a)they are civil legal services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1, and

(b)the Director has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part (and has not withdrawn the determination).

 

10 Exceptional cases

(1)Civil legal services other than services described in Part 1 of Schedule 1 are to be available to an individual under this Part if subsection (2) or (4) is satisfied.

(2)This subsection is satisfied where the Director—

(a)has made an exceptional case determination in relation to the individual and the services, and

(b)has determined that the individual qualifies for the services in accordance with this Part,

(and has not withdrawn either determination).

(3)For the purposes of subsection (2), an exceptional case determination is a determination—

(a)that it is necessary to make the services available to the individual under this Part because failure to do so would be a breach of—

(i)the individual’s Convention rights (within the meaning of the Human Rights Act 1998), or

(ii)any rights of the individual to the provision of legal services that are enforceable EU rights, or

(b)that it is appropriate to do so, in the particular circumstances of the case, having regard to any risk that failure to do so would be such a breach.

 

 

[What section 10 means in practice is “we were obliged to say that this Act was compatible with the Human Rights Act, so we stuck in this exceptional provision for legal aid to be granted in cases where NOT granting it would be a breach of Human Rights, but actually dishing it out to real people, for real cases? I should cocoa”    *]

 

 

*I wish people said “I should cocoa” more often

 

 

Anyway, the addition of s51 applications to Part 1 Schedule 1 means that the applications MIGHT fall within scope for legal aid (and thus be applications which might get legal aid after a means and merit test is applied)

 

However, it is not as simple as that (sorry) because where s51 gets placed in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO means that these applications are only in scope in narrow circumstances, and for all others you are stuck with exceptional (remember, when I say exceptional here, the statutory definition of whether that will actually occur is  “as likely to happen as a comet made of solid gold landing in your back garden and striking oil where it lands”      -    The Let’s Pretend Something is Available when it really isn’t Act  2014 section 1(1) )

 

 

 

So, in Part 1, Schedule 1 of LASPO  (as amended by Children and Families Act 2014),  applications under s51 come in two possible categories where the application can qualify for public funding

 

 

Paragraph 12

 

Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to a matter arising out of a family relationship between A and another individual (“B”) where—

(a)there has been, or is a risk of, domestic violence between A and B, and

(b)A was, or is at risk of being, the victim of that domestic violence.

 

 

So, if you can persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the reason you are applying for an order for post-adoption contact is that you are the victim of domestic violence or are at risk of domestic violence and that the application is in some way a remedy for that, you might get legal aid.

 

[Is it just me, or does that seem inherently unlikely? I mean, I have a creative brain and love thinking up crazy scenarios, but I’m struggling to come up with a set of circumstances that would fit that]

 

I suppose, racking my brain, that given that s51 allows for the Court to make an order that there shall be no contact, there MIGHT, just MIGHT be a conceivable circumstance in which the post-adoption contact order application might be to stop the perpetrator of domestic violence having contact and that would in some way alleviate the risk to the applicant. 

 

 [It is also possible, and perhaps more likely,  that this is referring to the adopters themselves as applicants for an order for NO contact to an individual, though the amount of adopters who would pass the means element of the Legal Aid test is microscopic, I suspect]

 

 

The other category is

 

Paragraph 13

 

Protection of children and family matters

13(1)Civil legal services provided to an adult (“A”) in relation to the following orders and procedures where the child who is or would be the subject of the order is at risk of abuse from an individual other than A

 

 

So the applicant would need to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the purpose of the application for post-adoption contact is to protect the child from risk of abuse from a named individual  (that individual has to be someone other than the applicant)

 

If you are the biological mother, you MIGHT be able to persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the risk of abuse comes from the child’s father and not yourself, or vice versa.  But I’m struggling to see how you persuade the Legal Aid Agency that the right way to protect the child from the risk of abuse is that you have some post adoption contact.

 

I again think that this is probably aimed more at financially impoverished adopters who meet the means test for Legal Aid, and are saying that contact poses a risk of abuse to the child from the parents.

 

 

I’m afraid that all of that was very long, because it is complicated, but how it ends up, it seems to me, is that section 51 applications aren’t going to be backed by Legal Aid UNLESS the LAA agree that there are exceptional circumstances   [solid gold comet strikes oil – you are now so rich you don’t need Legal Aid]

 

You could argue that if Parliament genuinely intended section 51 applications to be made, and for deserving cases to result in section 51 orders, they could have placed such applications squarely in Part 1 Schedule 1 of LASPO without the bizarre qualifications.  The gatekeeping provision could have been that the Legal Aid Agency would have to determine whether the application had sufficient merits to justify the funding being awarded.

Unless and until either the English Courts or the ECHR give a decision saying that failure to provide funding for such an application is in breach of human rights, it looks as though any parent making such an application would be doing so as a litigant in person.  Good job the legislation is written in such plain English.

Applying for contact AFTER a child is adopted

The family law provisions of the new Children and Families Act 2014 come into force on 22nd April.

The Act itself (as opposed to press releases boasting about how it will solve everything, give us free energy, a perpetual motion machine and bring peace and harmony to both the Middle East and the pro and anti-Europe wings of the Tory party) can be found here

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/pdfs/ukpga_20140006_en.pdf

There’s a LOT of it, so am going to try to tackle it in chunks. Today’s topic is going to be the new section 51A of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which makes provision for applications for contact AFTER an adoption order has been made.

Historically, Courts have been able to consider applications for the contact that a parent would have POST-ADOPTION, but that application and determination of it would have been BEFORE the adoption order was made. Thus, the adoption order would in effect be the last time the child would be the subject of litigation, and the Court’s involvement in their life would end.  (There are exceptions – as we saw in Re W the President was willing to overturn an adoption order to hear an appeal, there are adopters who end up being involved in subsequent care or private law proceedings themselves, but generally, once the adoption order itself was made, the Court were done with the child)

So, what about post 22nd April? Well, s9 of the Children and Families Act 2014 says this :-  [bold bits are mine, for emphasis]  – and it is important to note that this doesn’t just apply to adoption orders made after 22nd April, it applies to ALL adoption orders

9 Contact: post-adoption

(1) After section 51 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 insert—

“Post-adoption contact

51A Post-adoption contact

(1) This section applies where—

(a) an adoption agency has placed or was authorised to place a child for adoption, and

(b) the court is making or has made an adoption order in respect of the child.

(2) When making the adoption order or at any time afterwards, the court may make an order under this section—

(a) requiring the person in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made to allow the child to visit or stay with the person named in the order under this section, or for the person named in that order and the child otherwise to have contact with each other, or

(b) prohibiting the person named in the order under this section from having contact with the child

(3) The following people may be name d in an order under this section—

(a) any person who (but for the child’s adoption) would be related to the child by blood (including

half-blood), marriage or civilpartnership;

(b) any former guardian of the child;

(c) any person who had parental responsibility for the child immediately before the making of the adoption order;

(d) any person who was entitled to make an application for an order under section 26 in respect of the child (contact with

children placed or to be placed for adoption) by virtue of subsection (3)(c), (d) or (e) of that section;

(e) any person with whom the child has lived for a period of at least one year.        [This has a cut-off of not applying if it was more than 5 years ago, but seems to me that it would potentially cover relatives who cared for the child, foster carers, and possibly siblings]

(4) An application for an order under this section may be made by—

(a) a person who has applied for the adoption order or in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made,

(b) the child, or

(c) any person who has obtained the court’s leave to make the application.

(5) In deciding whether to grant leave under subsection (4)(c), the court

must consider—

(a) any risk there might be of the proposed application disrupting

the child’s life to such an extent that he or she would be harmed

by it (within the meaning of the 1989 Act),

(b) the applicant’s connetion with the child, and

(c) any representations made to the court by—

(i) the child, or

(ii) a person who has applied for the adoption order or in whose favour the adoption order is or has been made

Obviously, there’s a lot there, and it is written in Law not English.

The nub of it is, a birth parent, or someone with whom the child has lived for at least a year, can apply for an order for contact with that child, including staying contact, and the application can be made AFTER the adoption order is made.  They will need Leave of the Court to make that application – i.e there is a two stage test – can you persuade a Court to give you permission to make an application for contact, and then the Court deciding whether your application succeeds and you GET contact.

Leave applications are tricky – if you imagine that there’s a high jump bar, and that the parent will get leave if they can jump over it, and won’t get leave if they can’t, that’s a helpful way to look at it. The problem is, making sure that everyone knows exactly how high that bar is set and that a Judge doesn’t end up setting it too high, or too low. (That has been the subject of much of 2013s  law developments, with the Court of Appeal concluding that the bar on leave to oppose adoptions has been set too high for parents and needs to be adjusted to make it a fair test)

This test is contained in s51(5) which says that the Court MUST consider whether granting permission might disrupt the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it  (note that this is NOT whether contact would cause that harm, but allowing the ARGUMENT about contact would cause that harm). The wording here is strange, in that the reference to ‘harm’ then says in the meaning given in the Children Act 1989.  Does that therefore mean ‘significant harm’?

The Court MUST also consider the applicant’s connection with the child, and any views expressed by the child or the adopters.

You would have to say, in light of Re B-S, Re W et al of 2013, it is at best uncertain as to how any application for leave under s51 to apply for a contact order post adoption order being made would go. What we DO know is that the application would have to be served on the adopters (presumably via the Local Authority, as the parents won’t know the adopters address), and they would be represented in the leave argument hearing.

We don’t know whether public funding would cover a parent making a s51 application – it certainly isn’t automatic, which puts the parents in the hands of the generous discretion of the Legal Aid agency in making that decision. The adopters won’t automatically get legal aid to fund their legal costs either, even if they financially qualify.  That probably leaves the adopters going cap in hand to the Local Authority asking for help with legal fees, or paying out of their own pocket, or trying to represent themselves  (I honestly can’t see how the latter would work, particularly if the parent is representing themselves too)

In reality, a leave application can need the filing of evidence and a few hearings before the fight itself can take place. Note that in this leave requirement (unlike revocation of an SGO or Placement Order or leave to oppose adoption) there’s no requirement on the parent to show change or significant change since the order was made – they can just say that they want to have contact with their child.

The leave application can be a worrying and anxious time. It can potentially unsettle the child.

So my question really is

For a birth parent – is this a power that is potentially going to end up in you being able to get contact with your child post adoption, in which case it would be a good thing for you, or is it a ‘fake’ potential avenue that is actually a dead end just putting you through stress and optimism and then disappointment as each and every application for leave is refused? If it is the latter, why even put it in the Act?

For adopters – how does having this provision, knowing that you could be drawn into court proceedings and having to file statements and have arguments in court about contact, after the adoption order was made, make you feel?  And again, are they applications that have a chance of being made, or are you going through stress and anxiety for nothing?

Unless you are actually going to make s51 contact orders on parents applications after the adoption orders being made, it seems to me to just cause emotional pain to the parents because of false hope, and emotional pain and anxiety to adopters as they go through the process.  Does that then suggest that Parliament envisages that in some cases (not just the exceptionally rare ones) parents will succeed in these applications and get their contact?  And how will that change the character of adoption?

And in a final round-up, what prevents a parent who fails to get leave under s51 making another application next year, or the year after, or the year after that? They may never get their s51 leave, but they could hope to make life awkward and difficult for the adopters, maybe get the adopters worn down to offer a compromise or agree the contact sought.

Well, what “stops” this sort of hopeless, frivolous or vexatious litigation in the Children Act 1989  (and ‘stops’ is a bit strong) is section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, which gives the Court the power to say to a person who is making those applications, you can’t make them any more – or not without leave of the Court anyway

s91 (14)On disposing of any application for an order under this Act, the court may (whether or not it makes any other order in response to the application) order that no application for an order under this Act of any specified kind may be made with respect to the child concerned by any person named in the order without leave of the court.

Two problems with this

1. s91(14) applies to orders or applications made under the Children Act, whereas a s51 application is made under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 – there’s no provision similar to s91(14) under the Adoption and Children Act  (why would there be? Up until now, all applications ended once the adoption order was made)

2. Even if it did, all it does is turn the 2 stage test?  (May I make the application, can I have contact?) into a 3 stage test (may I ask whether I may make the application, may I make the application, can I have contact?)   And stage 1 still involves the adopters being notified, and having to come to court and fight the first stage, so really, what difference does it make?

So, to stop s51 applications being rained down on the adopters, the only real mechanism is to apply to the High Court to have the applicant declared as a vexatious litigant.  That forbids them from making any Court application without permission of the High Court   (so, we are back to the 3 stage test, with the problems already discussed)

[if you are interested further in the concept of vexatious litigants, this is a good speech on the topic, which gives the history and some projections for the future  http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/media/speeches/2006/speech-mor-30062006 ]

You also need to bear in mind that the current caselaw on making contact orders against adopters is not terribly helpful to parents. It has effectively two strands  – if the contact is agreed don’t make an order, and if the adopters don’t agree the contact there would need to be very compelling reasons to impose it on them.  (Are those guidelines dead in the water now that s51 is upon us? Is there genuinely a different ethos in Parliaments, and thus the laws view on making contact orders against adopters? We’ll have to wait and see how the Court of Appeal views this)    .

 
 
ADDENDUM EDIT
 
 
I am aware that my analysis of this has probably stirred up feelings of hope for birth parents and a degree of anxiety for adoptive parents. I am also aware that the Adoption Tsar, Martin Narey, considers that the provisions of s51 are primarily about allowing adopters to control contact and that there is no need for anxiety. I don’t want to make people worried unnecessarily, I’m not interested in scaremongering.
 
But, the power of the Court to make an order for contact AFTER the adoption order has been made is one that is within the new Act, and the power for a birth parent to seek to make that application is also there.  (I have seen the new application form, and it also makes it clear – there’s a box to fill in if you are a biological parent, and a box to fill in if the adoption order has already been made)
 
For me, the wording in s51A is clear – an order about contact can be made AFTER the adoption order is made, and an application can be made by a parent. The parent needs leave, and we simply don’t know at this point how the Courts will approach that leave decision. Post Re B-S, any application for leave is not as hopeless an application as it would have been a year ago, and the same is possibly true here.
 
For the child, it is certainly the case that contact post adoption won’t be ordered unless the Court look at it carefully and decide that it is in the child’s best interests (and the burden falls on the person seeking that contact). But for the adopters, and the parents, the actual leave application can still be stressful and anxious – both will have to attend Court and won’t be sure of the outcome.
 
As discussed in the blog immediately after this one, it seems highly likely that a biological parent won’t get legal aid to make the application – whether that makes things better or worse from an adopters point of view is hard to call.

 
 
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