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I would put this as a must-read (adoption case, dynamite)

 

The case is very fact-specific (the facts are extraordinary) but it is still very important.

 

I’ve written before about the leave to oppose adoption case law and whether this is a meaningful legal right given that there are no reported cases of an adoption being successfully opposed (there’s one law report of a Court being persuaded to make a Residence Order rather than adoption, but the child remaining with the prospective adopters).

 

For it to be a meaningful legal right, there must be some set of circumstances which would result in the opposition to adoption resulting in placement back in the birth family. But, the consequences of that for the recruitment and retention of adopters is massive.

 

As Holman J observed, this case is likely to attract strong opinions on both sides, and it does turn very much on an unprecedented set of facts.

 

Re A and B and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/47.html

 

 

 

The child, C, was the subject of Care proceedings and a Care Order and Placement Order were made in August 2013. The child was placed with prospective adopters (A and B) and they duly applied for an adoption order.

 

At the time of this hearing, the child was 20 months old and had lived with A and B for 13 months.

 

The child’s genetic father, who had not been a party to the care proceedings (and who does not hold PR for the child) sought leave to oppose.

 

This is the telling paragraph

 

It is accepted by all concerned in this case that if the father had come forward and the true paternity had been established at any time up to the moment when the child was actually placed with A and B, then he would not have been placed with them and, after due assessment of her, would almost certainly have been placed with the aunt.

 

 

I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but that paragraph is dynamite.

 

As is this one

 

The case and dilemma has provoked divergent professional opinions. The front line social workers for each of the child and A and B support the making of an adoption order. A child psychologist who was jointly instructed to perform a “paper exercise”, but has not met anyone concerned, favours the making of an adoption order. The Director of Safeguarding Children and Families and interim Strategic Director Children’s Services of the local authority (equivalent to the Director of Social Services in this field), who is the decision maker and who expresses the considered opinion and case of the local authority, firmly resists adoption and advocates that the child moves to live with the aunt. The child’s guardian also strongly advocates that outcome.

 

 

That made me blink several times, so I will spell it out. The social workers supported the adoption, but the Guardian AND MORE SIGNIFICANTLY the Director of Social Services supported the child being placed with the paternal aunt.

 

That really is an extremely difficult issue to resolve. As a Local Authority legal hack, the idea of a Director and Social Worker in an intractable difference of opinion makes me shudder. [This Director was clearly very fair minded in not just saying “well, I’m the big boss, so do what I say”]

 

I’m not surprised by what Holman J says at the opening of this judgment.

 

 

I have been a full time judge of the Family Division for almost twenty years. In all that time, apart from cases concerning serious ill health, I have rarely heard a more harrowing case. The hearing was a very painful one for all concerned, and I sincerely thank all parties and the professional witnesses for their attention, dignity and, to the extent possible, good humour. I know, and deeply regret, that my decision will cause intense grief. After hearing all the evidence and argument, and after due consideration, I am, however, clear as to the outcome, which I do not reach narrowly or marginally.

 

 

I’ve read many of Holman J’s judgments over the last few years, and he really has dealt with harrowing, peculiar and emotionally draining cases repeatedly, so to say that speaks volumes.

 

 

This passage will probably appear again – it is how the Court deals with the issue of “speculation” (and I think it is wonderfully constructed)

 

There is one further “legal” matter which it is convenient to mention in this section of this judgment. At times during the hearing, when longer term risks or advantages were being mentioned or considered, Mr Power referred, understandably but somewhat dismissively, to “speculation”. Advocates, and also judges, often do dismiss points as speculative or speculation. However, in relation to adoption, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 very clearly does require courts (and adoption agencies) to speculate. It requires, as the overarching duty, that the paramount consideration must be the child’s welfare throughout his life. This child is still less than two. He is healthy, and his normal life expectancy may be around a further 80 years. It is probable (but speculative) that he and his half sister, F, and his cousin, G, will outlive all the adults in this case by many years. I am required by statute to take a very long term view, but I cannot gaze into a crystal ball. I can only speculate. More specifically, the court is required by section 1(4) (c) of the Act to have regard to “the likely effect on the child (throughout his life) of having ceased to be a member of the original family and become an adopted person.” Whilst that paragraph requires the court to consider only the “likely” effect, any such consideration involves speculation; and (speaking generally) the further ahead one looks (and one must envisage a whole lifetime) the more speculative such consideration necessarily becomes. My decision in this case does include speculation. That is what Parliament has told me to do.

 

 

You may, as I was, be interested in how it was that this aunt was not a feature in the care proceedings. If she had been known about then, the Placement Order would not have been made and the child never placed with the prospective adopters A and B. So why wasn’t she known about?

 

 

This is the most fact-specific bit of the case, I think. (It is not THAT unusual for a birth father to be untraced during the proceedings and to appear later, it is the WHY that is significant here. Mr E here is NOT the genetic father, but he is the man who appears on the birth certificate as the father, and who was treated as the father in care proceedings)

 

The mother is a young woman of white ethnicity who is still in her very early twenties. She has had problems with both alcohol and drugs. While a teenager she had already had two children by different fathers. They are now aged about 5 and nearly 4. They were removed into care and have since been adopted together by one adoptive family. (I will refer to them later as the adopted maternal half siblings.) The mother began a relationship with Mr E. He, too, has had an unstable past and has a criminal record for a range of offences of both violence and dishonesty, and a recorded history of drug abuse. In March 2013 the mother gave birth to C. He was a normal, healthy baby, and is now a normal, healthy young child. As had already been pre-planned by Rotherham, care proceedings were immediately commenced and the baby was removed from the mother five days after his birth and placed with foster parents. Neither the mother nor Mr E engaged with the care proceedings nor, effectively, with the local authority. However, the mother and Mr E jointly registered the birth on 18 April 2013, jointly stating and signing that Mr E was the father to the best of their knowledge and belief.

 

[Keep that in mind – the mother was white]

 

 

The child’s social worker, from the end of March 2013 and still now, is Miss Claire Fogwill. She did not know or meet Mr E for some time. She did, however, see the baby. I have seen photographs taken of him shortly after his birth, including the original colour photograph which is part of the later formal application form for the placement order. Although not black, the baby is very obviously very brown and has obvious negroid features. These are not racist comments. They are relevant facts. As all concerned with the case agree, he very obviously appeared to be of mixed race. Miss Fogwill said in her oral evidence that “when [she] first saw him as a baby he seemed obviously to have a black parent or at any rate a strong black/negroid genetic strain.”

 

Miss Fogwill was finally able to meet Mr E, who was in prison, on 22 May 2013. She said that she was expecting to meet a black man and “was quite shocked” when he came into the room, since he appeared to be an entirely white man. She asked him whether he was the biological father. He said that he was. (It is, of course, entirely possible that the mother had assured Mr E that he was the father, if she had never confessed to him that she had been having sex on the side with the actual father. As I have no evidence at all from either the mother or Mr E, I simply do not know.) Miss Fogwill questioned Mr E further and, according to Miss Fogwill, he told her that the baby was very brown because he, Mr E, had a Burmese mother, and added that the baby would become paler with age. Neither Miss Fogwill nor, so far as I am aware, anyone else, took any steps to seek to verify whether in truth Mr E has a Burmese mother. I personally do not have the slightest idea. Miss Fogwill claimed that she was “not able to meet the mother again to ask her about paternity”, but in truth she made little effort to do so, and she made no enquiries of the mother’s own mother whose whereabouts were settled and known.

 

Miss Fogwill made reports to Looked After Reviews on 12 April, 13 May and 11 July 2013. Also present at, and chairing, these reviews was the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO). The minutes of the first two reviews record that the child “… is a child of mixed heritage. His mother is white British … the social worker is, to date, unclear of father’s ethnicity and has asked [sic] father to clarify this …” The minutes of the review on 11 July, also chaired by the IRO, record that “… the social worker has clarified with father that he is dual heritage as his mother is Burmese … the parents wished for the child to be referred to as White British, despite his presentation not reflecting this. Father [viz Mr E] informed the social worker that he expected the child’s skin colour to change with age …” There is no hint in those minutes that the IRO queried the account of paternity or suggested that further enquiries should be made. I do not make a criticism of the IRO for she has not been involved in this hearing and has had no opportunity to state her own point of view, but I accept the point made by Mr Prest that the responsibility of Miss Fogwill appears to have been shared with others. Miss Fogwill has, however, accepted that she made a serious error in swallowing the explanation of the Burmese mother (i.e. the child’s grandmother) and not investigating paternity further, and she has apologised from the witness box to both the true paternal family and the applicants for adoption. Miss Fogwill’s formal report to the court dated 28 June 2013 in support of the application for a placement order depicts a photograph of the child as I have already described, and refers to his having black hair and brown eyes and a dark complexion. It continues that the mother is white British and Mr E is half white British and half Burmese as his mum was Burmese and father white British. “[C’s] skin is quite dark however [Mr E] states that as [C] becomes older his skin will become paler. [Mr E’s] skin is white.”

 

The present guardian, Mrs Sheila Hassall, also acted in the care and placement proceedings. In her report dated 19 July 2013 she describes Mr E as “White British Burmese” and says at paragraph 12 “[C’s] paternal grandmother is Burmese, although I understand his father [viz Mr E] views himself as white British. At present [C] has the appearance of a baby who is not white British …” As I understand it, the guardian herself never actually met either the mother or Mr E. So she merely accepted the story via the social worker. She said that she only ever saw a blurred black and white photocopy photograph of the child. She said that she visited the baby once at the home of the foster mother. However he was asleep, face downwards, with his head largely covered. She only saw one arm sticking out. The arm looked brown but she did not examine the baby further. Mrs Hassall accepted her share of responsibility. She said during her oral evidence: “I make a heartfelt apology we are in this situation. I feel desperately sorry for all those involved.”

 

I have already referred to the report to the court for the application for a placement order. I do not know whether the circuit judge saw the original with the colour photograph which, as I have described, very clearly depicts a brown child of mixed race with negroid features; or whether he saw a black and white photocopy, one version of which I have seen, which shows the child’s face as a barely distinguishable large black blob like a large blob of spilt ink. At all events, the judge appears not to have raised any question about true paternity at the, probably short, hearing when he made the care and placement orders.

 

 

If you are following this, Mr E was named as the father on the birth certificate, the mother said that he was the father, and he said he was the father. The contradictory evidence (of people’s eyes) was firstly an area that people feel uncomfortable with – that of colour, and secondly Mr E had given an explanation for it that was accepted. On that first point, just reading the paragraph, even when said by a Judge, it made me feel uncomfortable to read that ‘n’ word.

 

So a last opportunity seriously to question paternity and consider obvious avenues of further enquiry was lost. I accept, of course, that such enquiries might not necessarily have uncovered the true father, but they well might have done, for the affair between the true father and the mother was well known in the community and circle within which they lived. The mother’s own mother certainly knew the true facts, as will later appear.

 

 

Let’s also not forget that in a culture of 26 weeks, no delay, and assessments only being done if they are ‘necessary’, it might have taken some persuasion to get the DNA test of Mr E done. If it had been done, the proceedings would have been delayed, but an inordinate amount of time and pain would have been avoided.

 

How did the real father ever find out about this? Deep breath, because this is quite complicated too.

 

The father was in a long-term relationship with someone else, Miss D. When he had been sleeping with the mother, he was cheating on Miss D. There had been speculation in the community and gossip, and someone came up to Miss D and showed her a photograph of the child as a baby.

 

Soon after the child was born someone showed Miss D a photograph of the baby. She could see that the colour and the features looked like her own daughter, F, and also like the father. She told him “I really think he is your child.” He continued to deny to her that he had had sex with the mother and that, therefore, he could be the father.

 

It seems, though this is not explicit, that these suspicions continued and finally the father’s sister (the aunt in question) approached the Local Authority in March 2014   to say that she thought her brother was the true father of this child. (For timing purposes, that’s seven months after the Placement Order, and two months after the prospective adopters had made their application to adopt)

 

On 6 March 2014 the aunt first contacted the social services and said that her brother might be the father of the baby. Miss Fogwill was shocked and surprised by this news. She and a more senior colleague interviewed the father on 14 March 2014. She then immediately arranged for DNA sampling and testing of the baby and the man, and a report dated 24 March 2014 established a 99.9999 per cent probability that he is indeed the father. All parties including A and B accept that he definitely is the father and the case has since proceeded on that basis. The father is a black African who was born and brought up in that continent. He is now aged 32. His own father died when he was young. He himself travelled to England in 2001 and claimed asylum. He has lived here ever since and has indefinite leave to remain. He is the seventh of a large family of eight children. His own mother, now aged 64, now lives in the Midlands. Two brothers live in the Midlands and South Wales. A sister lives in East Anglia, and his youngest sister, the aunt, lives in the Home Counties. The brothers and sisters in England and Wales have between them eight children who are paternal first cousins of C. Some of them are of mixed race, having also a white parent. The father’s three other siblings live variously within Africa and Canada. There is, therefore, a considerable extended paternal family, mostly located within England and Wales.

 

 

But hold on a minute – this all happened within a small community, and whether the father knew or not that he was the genetic father of this baby, he must surely have known that as he had been sleeping with the mother, there was a chance that he might have been?   The Judge found that he was aware of that.

 

And did he know that the baby was in care?

 

This evidence as a whole satisfies me that, within a very few weeks of the birth at the latest, the father knew perfectly well that it was highly likely that he was the father of the baby. He could not of course be certain, since he knew also that the mother had had other sexual partners. But she told him, in effect, that the baby was half black and that he had been her only black partner. Short of DNA testing, the likelihood was obvious.

 

He took no action at all. He showed no real interest in the baby, or even much interest in seeing him, although he did ask the mother if he could do so. I do not know why not, but it was probably due, at least in part, to his continuing stance of denial to Miss D. Whatever the reason, it is a significant part of the history of this case that for almost a year the father showed no interest at all in, or commitment at all to, the child, and denied rather than asserted that he was the father. So as well as the responsibility of Rotherham, the guardian, and possibly the court, for not investigating paternity further, a very heavy responsibility for events lies upon the father. If he had shown any real interest in the baby and put himself forward in any way as the likely father, then the true facts would probably have emerged much earlier and the baby would never have been placed with A and B.

 

A separate and distinct question is when the father first learned that the baby was in care. His case is that he learned this for the first time at the beginning of March 2014. He said that he saw the mother’s mother in the town. He asked her where the child was. The mother’s mother said that he was in care and that the mother had lied to him. He then immediately spoke to and told his sister, the aunt, and at his request she immediately contacted the social services. He says that in the first weeks after the birth he had indeed asked the mother if he could see the baby and she had fobbed him off by saying that the baby was staying with her mother or sister. She also misled him into thinking that she was caring for the baby by asking him on a few occasions for money for nappies.

 

To the very end of his evidence, even when recalled and admitting what I have recorded above with regard to his knowledge of paternity, the father remained adamant that it was only around early March 2014 that he first learned that the baby was in care, and that he at once informed the social services and requested that he or his family could care for the baby.

 

 

This last point might be critical – if the father knew that he was probably the baby’s father, he could have legitimately kept quiet not to rock the boat and jeopardise his relationship with Miss D UP UNTIL he knew that the baby was in care, whereupon it was time to speak up.

 

The Court concluded that his evidence that he had not known until shortly before his sister approached Social Services should be accepted.

 

I have to decide whether I am satisfied on a balance of probability that the father knew that the baby was in care as early as about April 2013, as the local authority allege; or only in early March 2014, as he himself claims. On this issue there is force in the point Miss Ford makes on the third page of her written closing submissions dated 21.11.14, and as she elaborated orally. The father’s case is that he first learned that the baby, of whom he was likely to be the father, was in care in early March 2014. He immediately contacted the social services (initially via his sister) and has, unquestionably, strenuously sought the move of the child to live with him or his family ever since. It was only later that he learned that the child had actually been placed for adoption or that there was a current application to adopt him. So, as Miss Ford puts it, his conduct by contacting social workers in March 2014 can only be explained by his having only recently learned that the child was in care. No other event or trigger has been identified as to why, having done nothing and shown no interest for so long, he suddenly did then make the contact which he did. Miss Ford asks, rhetorically: Assuming that he had known that the child was in care from, say, mid or late April 2013, why did he suddenly do something and with such resolve in March 2014? She submits that the activity in and after March 2014, for which there is no known other explanation, is really only consistent with his having recently learned in March 2014 that the child was in care.

 

I take into account the demeanour of the father in the witness box when he was recalled. At the same time as now admitting that soon after the birth the mother herself had told him that he was the father, he maintained his account, apparently convincingly, that he only knew that the baby was in care almost a year later, and said that the social worker must have misunderstood him. I also accept the force of Miss Ford’s point as described in the previous paragraph. There was room for misunderstanding, and I am not satisfied on a balance of probability that the father knew that the baby had been taken into care earlier than early March 2014, when he took action at once.

 

 

 

So, that’s how this situation arose. The person who had been treated as the father in the care proceedings was not the real father, and the real father had not known of the care proceedings because nobody had thought to tell him. The only person who knew both key sets of facts was the mother, and she had taken no action.  [The maternal grandmother might have known, by my reading, but whether that is definitive is hard to say]

 

 

The judgment then talks about the various assessments, but the long and the short of it is, the options available were to make an adoption order to A and B, or to remove the child from A and B and to place with the paternal aunt.

 

A and B were clearly very good, capable and loving people, well capable of caring for the child. The Judge said this about them :-

 

 

Even before C was matched with them, A and B prepared themselves very thoroughly as prospective adopters. They read widely. They attended courses. They learned about the importance of attachment, stimulation and other parenting qualities. This stood them and him in good stead. I accept unreservedly the current assessment by Miss Lancaster that A and B are the “perfect” adoptive couple. She said in her oral evidence that in spite of all the challenges they are remarkable people. They are excellent adopters doing a remarkable job. If she could paint the ideal adopters they are not far from the mark. They have an excellent understanding about attachment, about which they were trained. The have a very good understanding about the impact of loss and trauma. They have great appreciation of the kind of parenting styles that work well.

 

I accept unreservedly that C is now very well attached to A and B. He feels, and is, secure with them. They provide an excellent home. They are also undoubtedly deeply attached to him. B said very movingly “He is such a happy, settled, loving little person who knows who we are … I am so proud of him. I love him so much. I will always love him. He will always be my son.” C is also a familiar and much loved member of the extended families of both A and B.

 

There is no doubt that if the true paternal family had not emerged and put themselves forward in the way that they have, an adoption order would have been made several months ago.

 

 

And the Aunt?

My own impression of the aunt was very favourable. She is much more articulate than her brother, the father. She appeared to be thoughtful and flexible, and insightful and understanding of the issues in this case. She said that she has prepared her own son, G, for the possibility that he might be joined by another, younger, boy. She talks to G about C, and G would not be surprised if C became part of their family. She said that G himself is a lovely boy, very caring and very sharing, who plays very well with other kids. She paid generous and sincere tribute to A and B although of course she has never met nor seen them. She said she was just so grateful for what they have done. It is beautiful. They have taken very good care of him.

 

 

Even the social workers who were supporting the child being adopted by A and B were not critical of the aunt, just feeling that the child ought not to be moved.

 

 

[I will quickly note that the Aunt and Miss D were represented pro bono by counsel and solicitors, which was an extremely helpful and generous thing]

 

Holman J made it plain at the outset and repeatedly, that he was not approaching the case in a narrow “nothing else will do” manner, due to the recent authorities, but in weighing everything up as to what order would best meet the child’s needs throughout their lifetime.

 

 

The legal framework as I have so far described it is agreed by all the advocates in the case, including that I must apply all the relevant parts of section 1 of the Act. In their written skeleton arguments and written final submissions, as well as in their brief oral final submissions, there has been some debate between the advocates as to whether, in applying section 1, I should adopt the approach that I should only make an adoption order if “nothing else will do”. This led to some brief examination of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Re B (a child) [2013] UKSC 33, and some later judgments of the Court of Appeal in which that court appears to have been exercised by what the Supreme Court actually meant by what they said in Re B (most recently the judgments delivered by the Court of Appeal only two weeks ago on 18 November 2014 in CM v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council [2014] EWCA Civ 1479).

 

In my view that is a debate and territory into which I need not and should not enter. The legal and factual situations in those cases were different. In the present case, the child has already been lawfully and appropriately placed for adoption with A and B for over a year. A range of rights under Article 8 of the ECHR is engaged. There is a continuing legal relationship between the child and his paternal genetic family, with whom he has a father, grandmother, aunts, uncles and a paternal half sibling, but no current psychological relationship. He has never met any of them. (He also has several cousins but they are outside the definition of “relative” in section 144 (1) of the Act.) In this case the child unquestionably also has a private and family life and a home with A and B, and they with him, for which all three of them have the right to respect under Article 8. With so many Article 8 rights engaged and in competition, it does not seem to me to be helpful or necessary in the present case to add a gloss to section 1 of only making an adoption order if “nothing else will do”. (Indeed Mr Nicholas Power might have argued on behalf of A and B, but wisely chose not to do so, that there could now be no interference with the Article 8 rights as between A and B and C mutually except if “necessary” within the meaning of Article 8(2).) Rather, I should simply make the welfare of the child throughout his life the paramount consideration; consider and have regard to all the relevant matters listed in section 1(4) and any other relevant matters; and make an adoption order if, but only if, doing so “would be better for the child than not doing so”, as section 1(6) requires. If the balance of factors comes down against making an adoption order, then clearly I should not make one. If they are so evenly balanced that it is not possible to say that making an adoption order would be “better” for him than not doing so, then I should not do so. If, however, the balance does come down clearly in favour of making an adoption order, then, in the circumstances of this case, I should make one. I do not propose to add some additional hurdle or test of “nothing else will do”.

 

 

 

The parties had all drawn up balance sheets, and the Judge said something that I find very helpful when looking at balance sheets.

 

I have read and re-read those “balance sheets” and all the written closing submissions, and I have all the points listed there in mind. Judges frequently use the language of “balance” and “balance sheets” (and I do myself. I think lists such as the above are indeed very helpful). But the analogy with balancing scales may be misleading. When weights or objects are put on either side of a scale, their individual precise weights are known, or ascertainable. You can put four objects in one scale pan and seven in the other, and the scales will come down one way or the other due to the aggregate of the individual precise and ascertainable weights on each side. In a case such as this, however, none of the factors have precise weights. All that may be said of any individual factor is that, as a matter of judgment, it is more or less important or weighty than another. Mr Power’s list is long on the advantages of adoption and short on the disadvantages. It is not, however, the number of factors which counts but their respective importance. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 does not itself use the language of balance. It requires the court to “have regard to” all relevant matters, including those specifically referred to in section 1(4). The effect of section 1(6) is that the court must then make a judgment (applying section 1(2) and the paramountcy of welfare throughout the child’s life) whether making (in this case) an adoption order “would be better for the child than not doing so.”

 

 

 

I often read judgments from the High Court and thank my lucky stars that I am not, and never will be a Judge called upon to decide between two impossible situations. This was one of those occasions.

 

My condensing of this judgment is not, and could not be, a fair reflection of the deliberation that the Judge undertook. I would urge you to read the whole judgment to get a proper reflection of the complexities of this matter.

 

Nonetheless, you want to know the outcome, and I need to give it to you, so that debate can occur.

 

 

This case clearly requires taking both a short term and a long term view. C is currently very well placed with “perfect adopters”. They are a well trained couple with whom he is very well attached. He is of mixed race. They are both white and share with him that half of his ethnicity. A and B are “tried and tested” as has been said. His aunt and the principal members of the paternal family are black and share with him that half of his ethnicity. The aunt is a single person. She has not been “tried and tested” as a carer for C, but she has been observed as a carer of her own child, G, and thoroughly assessed as entirely suitable to care long term for C. There would be likely to be short, and possibly long term harm if he now moves from A and B to the aunt, but that is mitigated by his embedded security and attachments with A and B, and can be further mitigated by specialist training and support for the aunt, which she will gladly accept. The unquantifiable but potentially considerable advantage of a move to the aunt is the bridge to the paternal original family.

 

It is my firm judgment and view that it is positively better for C not to be adopted but to move to the aunt. In any event, I certainly do not consider that making an adoption order would be better for C than not doing so. Accordingly I must, as I do, determine not to make an adoption order and must dismiss the adoption application. Pursuant to section 24(4) of the Act, I exercise a discretion to revoke the placement order made in respect of the child on 2 August 2013.

 

The care order made on 2 August 2013 now once again has effect. Rotherham, in whose care C again now is, must engage intensively with all the relevant parties, and file and circulate within three weeks a written care plan setting out their plan for C and how they will implement, in the least damaging way, the process of his move from A and B to the aunt. It is impossible for me or any court to micro-manage that plan and process, and inconsistent with the respective roles and duties of the local authority and the court that I or the court should attempt to do so. If (as I sincerely hope will not be the case) any further resort to the court is necessary, application must be made locally to the designated family judge in Sheffield. A copy of this judgment must be given to, and read by, the Independent Reviewing Officer and all social workers having any continuing role with these families.

 

I have found this decision extremely painful, for I sincerely and deeply appreciate the intense grief it will cause to A and B and to their extended families and friends. But I have not, in the end, found it difficult; and, as I said at the outset of this judgment, it is not one which I reach narrowly or marginally. At the directions hearing in Leeds, when I had read few of the papers (and there were several key documents still to come) and before I had heard any of the oral evidence or argument, I described this as a finely balanced case. By the end, I do not think that it is. I am clear that the welfare of C throughout his life decisively requires that he is not adopted but moves to live with the aunt. It is my duty to make that welfare paramount.

 

 

 

There are a lot of very fact specific components to this case – it is unlikely that another case with exactly these issues will ever appear again. So it is not a definitive ruling for anything other than a case with these particular facts.

 

Nonetheless it is

 

 

  • The first successfully opposed adoption that I have seen since the 2002 Act came into being (and I didn’t find any reported ones going back to the 1976 Act, though I could have missed them)

And

 

  • Potentially significant – here, the assertions of mother and Mr E that Mr E was the father was accepted, and a true father emerged later. That particular set of circumstances (stripped of all of the ethnic features and clandestine affairs) is probably not that unusual. Local Authorities and Courts are somewhat dependent on a mother telling them that there is more than one putative father. Will we see successful challenges to adoption on that narrower aspect? Will we see Courts being more inclined to DNA test putative fathers even where mother is saying that there is only one putative father?

I come not to praise “nothing else will do” but to bury it

 

I think one could safely say that five Court of Appeal decisions in five weeks whose thrust is “don’t come wingeing to us about nothing else will do” counts as a hint being heavily dropped, much like my own heavy-handed hints that a Darcey Bussell calendar would hit the spot over this festive period.

 

Hints, of course, are not always taken.

 

[I know of more forthcoming decisions from the Court of Appeal, and I suspect there will be a few working their way through the system before Counsel for the appellant makes a difficult telephone call saying “we’re doomed, we need to drop this”]

 

Re T (Children ) (Rev 1) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1549.html

 

The original case had involved 6 children, the youngest two being made subject to Placement Orders, and the older four being made subject to Supervision Orders and placed with their father.

 

The mother’s appeal was largely based on a claim that the Judge had failed to properly analyse whether adoption was proportionate and that “nothing else will do” and whether a placement with her instead might have met the children’s needs.

 

Reading between the lines on this one, mother’s counsel was put through the wringer by the Court of Appeal who have a somewhat different approach to that taken earlier in the year and last autumn.

Ms O’ Leary concedes, without hesitation, that :

i) HHJ Waller is a well known and experienced family judge who gave a long, carefully considered and thorough judgment having seen and heard the parties give evidence.ii) The Social work report was ‘exemplary’ including the way in which it dealt with the question of future placement alternatives for the children in a balance sheet form. The social worker gave evidence and the judge undoubtedly had in mind the totality of her evidence.

iii) The authors of the FAST assessment report were not required by the mother to give evidence. It was conceded on behalf of the mother that the authors of that assessment would have been the people through whom to challenge the assessment generally, or to put a case that the mother could cope with two children if not with six.

iv) The judge had not been asked to consider the return of the two youngest children; the mother’s case had been unclear, but at trial she had been seeking the return of at least three of the children (including J and O).

v) The judge not only expressed his understanding that adoption is an order of “last resort” [48] but expressed on a human level, that “it is with great reluctance and after careful consideration” [265], that he reached the decision to grant the care and placement orders.

 

The issue of interest in this appeal, other than it being yet more bolstering of an argument that appeals based solely on “nothing else will do” are not going to be cutting much mustard anymore, is that the judgment at first instance did not contain a single section in which all of the analysis and proportionality assessment was self-contained, but the Court of Appeal ruled definitively that if this material was threaded through the judgment as a whole, that was sufficient.

 

  1. The judge recognising that the care plan of the local authority was one of adoption thereafter asked himself the right question namely whether “the permanent separation from the natural family and relatives and the severance of legal ties, is necessary or whether there is any other realistic option” [277].
  2. Whilst not corralled in one section of the judge’s judgment, the positives and negatives of both rehabilitation and of adoption are threaded through the judgment; they are no less a part of the Re BS exercise for that. The judge as he was entitled to do, answered the question he had posed and decided, on the facts and in the light of his careful welfare analysis, that the children’s future welfare could not be safeguarded with the mother and therefore other alternatives had to be considered.
  3. In this case it was accepted that given the ages of the children and the absence of any family members to care for them, adoption was the only realistic alternative to rehabilitation. Where the judge had only two options available to him his decision making process is not rendered “linear” simply by virtue of his conclusion that rehabilitation is not in the best interests of the children, so leaving adoption as the only realistic option for the children concerned. The “holistic” consideration to be applied in applications for adoption had been implicitly, if not explicitly, conducted through the careful weighing up of the benefits for and against rehabilitation and for and against adoption which are found within the body of the judgment.

 

 

Over-egging the pudding

I seem to be jumping the gun on the Christmassy theme, it still (just) being November and having done a Santa Claus is coming to town post yesterday and a pudding one today.

 

[Quick tangent – I am myself surprised to learn that in the phrase ‘over-egging the pudding’ one is not talking about the sort of eggs that have yolks and whites. It seemed immediately obvious that it was about putting too many eggs in the pudding, but no – it means in this sense the ancient Anglo-Saxon use of ‘egg’ as in excite. So it means not whipping something up too much. Also ‘pudding’ here means sausage, not a dessert. So literally “don’t over-excite the sausage”   – apologies to anyone who typed “over-excite the sausage” into Google – this really isn’t the sort of site you were after. Just move on.   The metaphor works much better as ‘don’t put too many eggs into your pudding mixture’ than ‘don’t over-excite the sausage’  *]

 

Anyway, this case is about social workers over-egging the pudding when giving their evidence and presenting their arguments.

 

This is a County Court case (feel free to read that as being “Family Court sitting in a building which is called a County Court” if you are in the Ministry of Justice ) so it is not precedent, but it contains some important lessons and it is well worth a read.

 

Sanchia Berg of the BBC has written a good piece on it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-30227974

 

 

The case is North East Lincolnshire v G and L 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2014/B77.html

 

It was a case involving a three year old child called J. His mother had been unable to care for him due to substance misuse problems and she sadly died within the course of the proceedings. The two options that came before the Court were placement with grandparents, or adoption.

 

The Local Authority and the Guardian were recommending adoption and considered that the grandparents could not meet the child’s needs. It was said that the grandparents had had a history of alcohol misuse and domestic violence.

 

The Judge disagreed, but more than that, criticised the Local Authority witnesses for taking a biased approach and not being fair.

 

 

I heard evidence over two days. I heard in particular from Neil Swaby who had been the social worker for a substantial period, and also from Rachel Olley. During the course of that evidence the local authority’s case was severely undermined. Neil Swaby seemed very reluctant to accept that anything positive could be said about either set of grandparents. When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”. He was very begrudging indeed in his evidence and I had the clear impression that he was, for whatever reason, whether it was his own inclination or instructions from above, that he was intent on saying only things which supported the local authority’s case and was very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.

 

           I then heard evidence from Rachel Olley whose evidence was totally discredited in my view. She sought to make it a substantial plank of her evidence that J was a child who had real behavioural problems, and had had them throughout his placement with foster carers. That, unfortunately, conflicted very strongly with not only what she had said in her own statement but what was said in the adoption social worker’s statement. Again I had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable. In those circumstances I found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.

 

 

From time to time, I provide social workers with training, and a key part of that training is letting them know that a major thing that the Court is looking for is fairness. The power of the State is substantial and it is essential that when the State is making decisions and recommendations that can have such a devastating effect on people that they are being fair. That means giving credit for things that parents do well, seeing the positives, looking for the positives – it means saying sorry when the State have made a mistake or got something wrong, and it means not cherry picking in your evidence so that you focus entirely on the bad points and ignore the good points.

 

Things like this :-

 

When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”

 

Can only persuade a Court that the worker is not fair and reasonable.

 

{I don’t mean in this piece to have a go at the individual workers concerned – firstly, anyone can have a bad day or a bad case, and secondly, I think the mistakes that these workers made are sadly not unique to them and are symptomatic of a culture of defensive practice and a preoccupation with ‘winning’ and ‘child rescue’. What these two workers did is not unique – it is rare for a Judge to nail someone for it so vividly and name them, but it does happen. Yes, a social worker has to present their professional opinion, yes they have to make a decision, yes sometimes that decision will be very painful for the family – but within all of that, the social worker should still be alive to the other side of the argument – to see how else it could be looked at, to acknowledge the real positives that the family have to offer}.

 

The Judge did say that he had rarely encountered this sort of behaviour in evidence from social workers, but that it made it very difficult if not impossible to rely on their evidence

 

Having heard the evidence of Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley I took the view, as I have already indicated, that the local authority’s case was wholly undermined. Their concerns appeared to be grossly overstated in order to try and achieve their ends. I have never, in over ten years of hearing care cases taken the view, as I did in this case, that the local authority’s witnesses were visibly biased in their attempts to support the local authority’s case. It is very unfortunate and I hope I shall never see that again.

 

 

 

The Judge looked at the particular criticisms of the grandparents, and set those into context. (The Judge doesn’t quote Hedley J’s masterful analysis in Re L, but the spirit of it is clear to see)

 

So far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned, may I say, I deplore any form of domestic violence and I deplore parents who care for children when they are significantly under the influence of drink. But so far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place. The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the Courts are not in the business of social engineering. The courts are not in the business of providing children with perfect homes. If we took into care and placed for adoption every child whose parents had had a domestic spat and every child whose parents on occasion had drunk too much then the care system would be overwhelmed and there would not be enough adoptive parents. So we have to have a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the Courts

 

 

There was a new social worker brought into the case, a Mr Nelson. The Judge was critical of one portion of Mr Nelson’s evidence – and this will no doubt strike a chord with anyone who does children cases regularly – it is a hint that things are probably untoward but that we simply don’t know yet to what extent – a technique that is really easy to assert but because it is so nebulous and flimsy really difficult to analyse.

 

Dealing with Mr. Nelson’s report I find it is significant that Mr. Nelson seems to try to revive at least one aspect of the local authority’s case which had been discredited. For example, in relation to I who from the papers I had read, appears, despite his problems, to be a nice lad, Mr. Nelson sets out the history of the problems that I has had and concludes in paragraph 3.5 by saying, “At the time of writing this report I’s problematic behaviour is not known”. There is the clear implication in that sentence that there must be some problematic behaviour from I but Mr. Nelson does not know what it is. That smacks to me of the same bias that I regrettably have to say I saw from Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley

 

 

Another criticism of the grandparents was that if J were placed with them, he would not have his own bedroom and would need to share a room – what the Judge says here is telling

 

 

Mr. Nelson also raises issues which it seems to me are not serious issues. For example he raises an issue about the sleeping arrangements. Now, I accept, of course, that in an ideal world each child would have his own – his or her own bedroom and certainly you would not have children of different sexes sharing at least beyond a certain age. But we live in fact in a world where probably the majority of families all sleep in the same bedroom and so it cannot be said that the fact that a child may have to share a room is a significant problem

 

 

The case is not decisive of anything other than the result for the individual family and individual child, but it does raise some wider issues about the importance of being fair, the importance of not setting the bar too high for family members and the importance of being realistic about your expectations and seeing things in the round.

 

 

Have a good weekend everyone and don’t over-excite any sausages.

 

 

*[As with any Etymology, you have to take these explanations with a pinch of salt.  And oh God, looking at the eytomological explanation of “take it with a pinch of salt” opens up a whole new can of worms… and so the long day wears on]

Who you gonna call? Myth-busters

 

 
There’s been quite a lot of publicity about Martin Narey’s Myth-Busting document on adoption, following the recent adoption statistics taking a hit – something that any one who had been reading the case law in the last 18 months had seen coming a country mile away.

Apparently that’s all just a misunderstanding by dopey Local Authority social workers and lawyers, and it is all our fault.   The Court of Appeal overturning case after case last summer had nothing to do with it.
[Tim Loughton, the former Children’s Minister instead says that the problems are due to Judges sulking about legal aid cuts and slowing things down deliberately. At least, according to the Telegraph he said that. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/11224155/Judges-resentment-toward-Government-adding-to-adoption-slump-ex-minister-warns.html ]

 

http://www.adcs.org.uk/download/resources/adoption/ALB%20-%20Impact%20of%20Court%20Judgments%20on%20Adoption%20-%20November%202014.pdf

The national Adoption Leadership Board, Family Justice Board, and the Department for Education have heard regularly that these changes are a response to a number of high profile court judgments on care and adoption order cases, notably Re B and Re B-S. Some of this feedback suggests a degree of misinterpretation of these judgments. This appears to have resulted in inaccurate assumptions being made about the judgments which, in reality, do not alter the legal basis for the making of care and placement orders.

 

The document discusses the two recent cases from October, where the Court of Appeal distanced themselves from a literal interpretation of “nothing else will do” – explaining in Ben Goldacre’s phrase “I think you’ll find its a little more complicated than that”

If the Myth-Busting document were confining itself to commentary that the deluge of appeals last summer were something of a blip and we have settled down from a strictly literal interpretation of Baroness Hale’s “nothing else will do” phrase to something rather more nuanced, then I’d be fine with it.  Or even “rumours of the death of adoption have been greatly exagerrated”

Though frankly, no matter how senior the senior QC, I’d prefer to hear the Court of Appeal say “just ignore BS, it changes nothing” than to take it from a document with no legal status or weight.

 

I don’t care for the implication that Re B and Re B-S weren’t a shift in emphasis and culture – that’s to completely ignore just about everything that Hale and Neuberger said about the nature of adoption in Re B, to ignore the ECHR in Y v UK when they said this :-

 

“family ties may only be severed in very exceptional circumstances and … everything must be done to preserve personal relations and, where appropriate, to ‘rebuild’ the family. It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

 

or that the Court of Appeal meant nothing of substance whatsoever when they said this

 

“a process which acknowledges that long-term public care, and in particular adoption contrary to the will of a parent, is ‘the most draconian option’, yet does not engage with the very detail of that option which renders it ‘draconian’ cannot be a full or effective process of evaluation. Since the phrase was first coined some years ago, judges now routinely make reference to the ‘draconian’ nature of permanent separation of parent and child and they frequently do so in the context of reference to ‘proportionality’. Such descriptions are, of course, appropriate and correct, but there is a danger that these phrases may inadvertently become little more than formulaic judicial window-dressing if they are not backed up with a substantive consideration of what lies behind them and the impact of that on the individual child’s welfare in the particular case before the court. If there was any doubt about the importance of avoiding that danger, such doubt has been firmly swept away by the very clear emphasis in Re B on the duty of the court actively to evaluate proportionality in every case.”

If you think that has had no alteration on the legal basis for the making of Placement Orders, then I’m afraid we’ll have to disagree.  Does it change the tests in the Act? No, absolutely not. But as the Supreme Court made plain in Re B, proportionality is now a key ingredient in assessing such decisions.  And the interpretation of the word ‘requires’ in the Adoption and Children Act 2002  is now inextricably bound up with proportionality and article 8.  And the move away from linear judgments (whereby adoption ended up looking like the best option simply because all the others had been ruled out before the Court thought about adoption at all) from Re G is unquestionably an alteration to the legal basis for the making of Placement Orders.

If instead you mean – the combination of all that law should not mean that children who ought to have been adopted in 2012 shouldn’t be adopted now – the law is about making professionals and Judges work much harder on clarity of thought and reasoning, I wouldn’t entirely disagree  (I think that’s Baker J’s take, and I rate Baker J very highly).  I think there’s a very important debate to be had about whether Hale and the Court of Appeal wanted adoption to be harder to get for children, or harder to get for PROFESSIONALS.

But whether the “bar” has been raised or not, the legal basis has certainly changed – a judgment that would have passed muster in 2012 would not today.

 

And I completely agree with the document on Myth 4

MYTH 4 – because it is a “last resort” planning for adoption must wait
23. Local authorities should plan at the earliest possible stage for the possibility of adoption where it seems possible that other options – such as reunification with family, or care by family or friends – might not prove a realistic course of action

That does not mean pre-empting any decision. Nor does it remove the need to provide expert, high quality, evidence-based assessments of all realistic options to the court – which is essential in every case. But planning ahead is necessary to avoid delay and allows for a more timely process in achieving the right outcome for the child.
Absolutely right. I fully agree.  One out of five Myths successfully Busted. The others, rather less so.

 

 

I had a long long diatribe, but I’m going to confine myself just to Myth Five.

Let’s just take Myth number 5 in detail.

MYTH 5 – the 26 week rule applies to placement orders
24. Under the law as it came into force on 22 April 2014, any application for a care order or a supervision order must be completed within 26 weeks (unless the court is satisfied that delay is necessary, in which case a court may grant an extension). Placement order applications are not subject to the 26 week time limit. However, if the case is one in which the care plan is for adoption, if it is possible to complete the placement order application within the 26 week time limit, then that is likely to be in the best interests of the child, as we know that delay damages children.
If one takes each individual word, it seems true and accurate. But it doesn’t actually represent reality. The suggestion here is that Placement Order applications are free of the 26 week shackles, though it is good to get it done in that time if possible. The implication is that you can do Placement Orders in a timescale that is the child’s timescale, free of 26 week confinement.

That’s just not actually true in a meaningful way.
Yes, under the law as it came into force on 22nd April 2014 the 26 week timetable applies to care order applications, not placement order applications.

But the Act and the law are not the same things. They aren’t identical.

You can’t seek a Care Order with a plan of adoption unless you have got approval from the Agency Decision-Maker. And if you’ve got approval from the Agency Decision-Maker, you are in a position to lodge your placement order.

So if the Local Authority HAVE to hit a 26 week timetable (really 17 weeks for them, because they have to provide their evidence BEFORE the end of the case to let others respond to it) for their Care Order, then in any case where there’s a PLAN for adoption, then the same timetable applies.

 

Don’t take my word for it – let’s look at what the Court of Appeal said in a judgment that is utterly missing from the Myth-Busting document

Surrey County Council v S 2014

There was no reason why the local authority could not have obtained the agency decision maker’s decision in this case. They could then have commenced placement order proceedings to run concurrently with the care proceedings. That would have been fairer to the mother who has no automatic legal aid to oppose placement order proceedings. A concurrent hearing of care and placement order applications also helps to prevent the error of linear decision making because the court has all of the evidence about the welfare options before it. Indeed, I would go further: in order for the agency decision maker to make a lawful decision that the children be placed for adoption, the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 (as amended) must be complied with. For that purpose, the agency decision maker has a detailed ‘permanence report’ which describes the realistic placement options for the child including extended family and friends. The report describes the local authority’s assessment of those options. When a decision is then made by the agency decision maker it is based on a holistic non-linear evaluation of those options. That decision leads to evidence being filed in placement order proceedings. It is good practice for that evidence to include the permanence report used by the agency decision maker, the record or minute of the decision made and a report known as an ‘annex A’ report which is a statutory construct which summarises the options and gives information to the court on the suitability of the adoptive applicants. All of this permits the court to properly evaluate the adoption placement proposal by comparison with the other welfare options.

•In care proceedings where the local authority are proposing a care plan with a view to an adoptive placement, the court is likely to be missing important evidence and analysis if the placement order proceedings are considered separately. Furthermore, without the agency decision maker’s decision, any care plan based on an adoptive proposal cannot be carried into effect. It is likely to be inchoate or at least conditional on a decision not yet made and the outcome of which cannot be assumed. I make no criticism of the key social worker or the children’s guardian in this case. Their materials were of high quality but necessarily, without the agency decision maker’s decision, they could not present a full analysis of the factors in section1(4) of the 2002 Act and could do no more than pay lip service to the proposed adoption plan of the local authority and the interference with family life that it would have entailed.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/601.html

[This case sticks out in my mind because it was Ryder LJ giving the lead judgment and I wholly agreed with it. That gave it a veneer of uniqueness that makes it easy to recall]

And of course, we are seeing right now with Re D that having a stand-alone Placement Order application (which is the practical import of Myth number 5 if we believe what Narey’s document is telling us) leads to the parents being unrepresented for the most draconian order that can be made. Article 6 anyone?

Myth 5 is not correct in any meaningful way – Care and Placement Orders are now inextricably bound up together and so, therefore are their timetables.

When the document says that it is a myth that 26 weeks apply to Placement Orders, that’s just not correct in any meaningful way in the real world. If you want to seek a Placement Order, you’re going to be doing it on a 26 week timetable, or persuading the Court to grant a s32(5) extension of that timetable in accordance with Re S.

 

Bustin’ makes me feel good.

 

 

I’ll quickly say that when the Myth-Busting document says of Re B-S  The judgment does not make it easier to obtain permission to oppose an application for an adoption order. The test remains the welfare of the child throughout his or her life.  

 

That simply holds no water when you look at the cases – pre B-S no successful leave to oppose, after B-S they are rare but happening.  An adoption order being discharged so that the argument could be re-heard, for example (Re W) On the ground, we’ve gone from leave applications being very unusual to every other adoption application having one.  And reports now of successful leave to oppose cases leading very close to a successful opposition (the High Court saying that it was only due to the exceptional circumstances and facts of the individual case that led to the father’s preference of a Special Guardianship Order not being the final outcome Re N (a child) 2014 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/1491.html I have already indicated that this is an exceptional case. If it were not an exceptional case, I doubt whether an adoption order would have been appropriate )

 

The major plank of LA opposition to leave to oppose applications pre B-S – the impact on the carers of the application, which usually defeated such applications without more, is now rarely deployed, because Re B-S altered the principle dramatically in highlighting that the child’s welfare is not a short term thing, or even during childhood but is to be extended to consider his or her entire adult life.

 

So far as Busting is concerned, this is less Peter Venkman and more this dude  (a figment of the imagination)

 

There is no Narey, there is only Zuul

There is no Narey, there is only Zuul

Why is there something instead of nothing?

 

An age-old philosophical question, and one that every generation finds for itself – I myself remember playground arguments when I was about seven – “If God made everything, then who made God? And who made the person who made God?”    [But then I also remember being taken to the Deputy Head’s Office for a fist-fight about whether the Beatles were better than Elvis]

 

I shall pass that question over to Brian Cox, who can answer it more ably than I can and also with a boyish charm that I would lack. (I think my favourite scientific answer is from Alan Guth “The universe is simply one of those things that happen from time to time”

 

But for our legal purposes, the ‘something instead of nothing’ debate is focussing on adoption, and the soundbite formulation that it appears that the Court of Appeal may be deeply regretting that a Court can’t make a Placement Order unless satisfied that “nothing else will do”

 

Understandably, if you tell a group of lawyers that the test is “nothing else will do”, half of them will find something and argue that if there is something then there can’t also be nothing.  Something else and nothing else are mutually exclusive, surely.

 

The Court of Appeal are in a process of refinement (or retreat, if you want to be mean)

 

Last week, we had Re M H   http://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/10/29/nothing-else-will-do-court-of-appeal-clarification/

 

This one is Re M (A child : Long-Term Foster Care) 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1406.html

 

 

We don’t need to go into the whys and wherefores of why the child couldn’t be with mum, but save to say that it was quite plain that (a) she had problems that she couldn’t fix on her own (b) The therapy that she would need to fix the problems would take at least two years and (c) it wasn’t clear whether she would be fixed at the end.

 

The LA were saying – the timescales for change and prognosis for change mean that the child can’t wait for the mother to make those changes, and thus nothing else than adoption will do.

 

The mother’s case seems to have been that the Court should embark on a course of therapy, see how the first 6 months had gone and THEN make the decision.

 

The Court instead arrived at a “something” which involved the child being in foster care, subject to a Care Order until such time as mother was ruled as being capable of meeting the child’s needs.

 

[That sentence probably has a mixed response. If you are English or Welsh AND a lawyer or social worker, you’ll think it is nuts. If you are a parent, you’ll think it sounds fair. If you are a Scottish lawyer or social worker, you might think it sounds reasonable, because that’s an approach that is foreign to England and Wales but something that occasionally happens in Scotland.]

 

 

This was a case in which the Recorder had given three judgments, at various stages (the final judgment, an addendum giving clarification and then a judgment on the LA’s application for permission to appeal).

 

As the Court of Appeal illustrate, the reasoning is not perhaps ideal when you lay the three judgments alongside each other. My first draft used the word ‘inconsistent’ but the Court of Appeal say that to call it inconsistent is inappropriate, so I changed my words.

 

 

21. The Recorder’s three judgments do not sit easily together and nor does his thinking emerge clearly from them. There are, on the face of it, inconsistencies in what he says. I am not entirely sure whether this is because he was inconsistent in his thinking or because, in so far as his true reasoning emerged, it only did so gradually over the course of the three judgments.

 

22. I can illustrate what I mean by contrasting the end of the permission judgment with the earlier judgments. Concluding the permission judgment, the Recorder expressed himself in a way which suggested that he saw foster care as catering for the next two years or so, until the possibility of L returning to live with M had been fully explored. In the earlier judgments, in contrast, there was, at times, a sense that he contemplated that L would remain in foster care for the rest of her childhood, probably reflecting a different strand of his thinking which was about the importance of continuing the relationship between L and her parents through contact. The end of the permission judgment reads:

 

“This is a case where it will become apparent in 2 years or perhaps less whether M will be able to care for her daughter, when it is established if she will respond to therapy/treatment. If therapy and treatment is successful, M will be able to apply to discharge the care order. If, as foreseen by Dr Penny, there is a possibility, if not a strong possibility, that therapy fails (sic)…. LA can then make a fresh application for a placement order.”

 

23. The first judgment, in contrast, included passages such as those which I have set out below, which I think show that the Recorder was considering long-term foster care with contact as an option in its own right which would potentially endure throughout L’s childhood, albeit that there are some allusions suggesting that he may also have had in mind the possibility of a return to M’s care following therapy (see for example, §64 and the end of §74). The first two passages show the importance that the Recorder attached to continuing contact and the final one appears to be contemplating indefinite long-term foster care in order to maintain that contact:

 

“I find that the particular needs of L for the present are for her to be cared for in a ‘secure, warm and loving family that is able to meet all her needs’ and, crucially, for continuing the existing and loving relationships with her birth parents by way of direct contact.” (§72, my emphasis)

“I am also concerned that L will interpret being cut off from M as being a ‘punishment’ for having behaved wrongly…. “(§73)

“I do not think that this analysis [the guardian’s analysis of the shortcomings of long term foster care] places sufficient weight on the importance of maintaining direct contact with her parents. It is an evaluation which does not explain why long term foster care ‘will not do’, to paraphrase, slightly, the words of Baroness Hale in a number of cases. I accept that foster placements may not be as stable or secure as adoption orders, but some succeed, just as some adoptions fail. There is no reason for the local authority to be unnecessarily intrusive in a long term fostering placement. She should be able to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, save that she would be seeing her birth parents during contact, rather than living with one or other of them.” (§78)

 

24. In the second judgment, which the Recorder expressly did not intend to affect his conclusions in his first judgment (§81), there are passages which seem to merge the idea of long-term foster care as a freestanding option and foster care as a way of preserving the possibility of a return to M. This can be seen, for example, in §88 where the Recorder commented that the social worker had not considered what L’s wishes would have been if she had been offered the option of “long term foster care with direct contact continuing and her mother receiving treatment and the possibility of return to her mother’s care if the treatment was successful”. It can also be seen in §93 where the judge comments on the Statement of Facts as follows:

 

“Again, there is no analysis of the option of long term foster care, with its benefits of continuing the strong bond between M and L and the possibility of return to her care if she successfully undergoes the therapy and other interventions.”

 

 

25. The passages that I have quoted so far leave the reader unclear as to the design that the Recorder had for long-term foster care, whether it was to be a vehicle for preserving contact or the means of providing an opportunity for a return to M if her therapy succeeded or both, but it would probably be inappropriate to describe them as inconsistent. However, I agree with LA that the Recorder’s rejection of temporary foster care as inappropriate for L at §76 is difficult to reconcile with the order that he made which, on one view, provided for just that, certainly if events were going to develop as the Recorder contemplated at the end of the permission judgment.

 

 

The option of long-term foster placement being the right option for the child was possible (and it might be possible to have made a case for the plan that the Recorder ended up with), but as the Court of Appeal say, that’s going to require a very clear and reasoned judgment

 

 

27. In the course of argument, Mr MacDonald submitted persuasively that the difficulties in the course taken by the Recorder were demonstrated in practical terms by the problem for LA in deciding what type of foster care should be chosen for L if his order were to be upheld. He had created, it was submitted, an undesirable half-way house between true long-term foster and short-term foster care which was the worst of all worlds for L. There is force in that submission. The Recorder’s plan for L had built into it uncertainty and insecurity. It also incorporated delay for a period potentially extending to 2 years. Delay, on the evidence before the Recorder (which was in familiar terms), was likely to harm L’s chances of a successful adoption placement if, ultimately, that was the proper outcome for her. Indeed, he himself accepted that a decision about whether adoption was appropriate needed to be made as soon as possible because a successful adoptive placement was more likely now than later (§72).

 

28. To justify a decision such as this would require the clearest of reasoning, particularly in the face of the very guarded prognosis for M’s therapy. I am afraid that this is absent from the Recorder’s judgments. I cannot reliably tell whether he proceeded as he did in order to leave open the possibility of L going home to one of her parents if therapy were to prove successful or because he considered that her relationship with them was such as to require preservation through contact, notwithstanding the disadvantages for L of the long-term foster care which would be the inevitable corollary of that. Furthermore, I am not confident that he gave weight to the guarded prognosis for successful therapy, or took into account the advantages for a child of her age of adoption and the disadvantages of long-term foster care, or bore in mind the advice that he had accepted at §72 (see below) as to the need to deal with the adoption question sooner rather than later. He seems to have been inclined to minimise the disadvantages of foster care, on the basis that long-term foster care would be better than short-term foster care and that LA would not be “unnecessarily intrusive in a long-term fostering placement” and L could have “a relatively normal childhood” in that context (§78). In this regard, he was, in my view, overly optimistic, not least because, with the best will in the world, LA would not be able to avoid involvement in L’s life because of their statutory duties to protect her as a looked after child.

 

 

 

But there clearly was “something” here, and “something” that the Recorder had not been satisfied should be ruled out. So, in the presence of “something” there’s an absence of the “nothing else” for the nothing else will do test, surely?

 

 

Well, no. The Court of Appeal explain that the shorthand test incorporates within it the more important concept that one is looking at [emphasis in italics is the Court of Appeal, underlining mine]

 

 

30. The “recent authorities referred to above” are Re B (a child) [2013] UKSC 33 and Re G (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation) [2013] EWCA Civ 965. What is said in these authorities about the need to consider all the options and to sanction adoption only if nothing else will do must be interpreted with a careful eye to the realities of a child’s life. Delay is one of factors that always has to be taken into account in determining any question with regard to a child’s welfare, see section 1(3) Adoption and Children Act 2002 (ACA 2002) and section 1(2) Children Act 1989 (CA 1989). But whether an individual child’s welfare requires adoption depends on many other factors besides delay. A vital starting point for what those factors might be in a given case is the list in section 1(4) ACA 2002 (and its equivalent for Children Act proceedings in section 1(3) CA 1989) but these are not of course exhaustive lists. It is to be noted that the child’s age features in both of them.

 

31. The fact that speedy action will improve the prospects of a successful adoption for a particular child of a particular age must take its place in the overall appraisal of the case. Sometimes when considered with all the other factors, it will dictate that the court approves a plan for adoption of the child, even when full weight is given to the important reminders in recent cases, starting of course with Re B, that steps are only to be taken down the path towards adoption if it is necessary.

 

32. What is necessary is a complex question requiring an evaluation of all of the circumstances. As Lord Neuberger said at §77 of Re B, speaking of a care order which in that case would be very likely to result in the child being adopted:

 

“It seems to me inherent in section 1(1) [Children Act 1989] that a care order should be a last resort, because the interests of the child would self-evidently require her relationship with her natural parents to be maintained unless no other course was possible in her interests.” (my emphasis)

I emphasise the last phrase of that passage (“in her interests”) because it is an important reminder that what has to be determined is not simply whether any other course is possible but whether there is another course which is possible and in the child’s interests. This will inevitably be a much more sophisticated question and entirely dependent on the facts of the particular case. Certain options will be readily discarded as not realistically possible, others may be just about possible but not in the child’s interests, for instance because the chances of them working out are far too remote, others may in fact be possible but it may be contrary to the interests of the child to pursue them.

 

 

 

The Court of Appeal had been asked to make a Placement Order, but decided that the case needed to be resubmitted for re-hearing.

 

We are continuing to refine / retreat from “nothing else will do” and our soundbite test is really ending up to be quite a nuanced and long test, rather more like

 

The Court must look at each of the options for the child, consider which are remote and which are possible, and of the possible options consider whether they are contrary to the interests of the child to pursue them. If there is an option that remains that is a less interventionist order than adoption, that should be preferred.

 

That isn’t snappy, it isn’t catchy, it isn’t memorable  – but if we learned anything from the “imminent risk of really serious harm” debacle  (maybe we didn’t) it is perhaps that Courts should stick to nuance and long formulations and the statute and leave  catchy slogans to Don Draper

 

[It is therefore not Adoption > long-term fostering for the child therefore adoption, but long-term fostering being an option for the child that although possible is not in their interests]

Nothing else will do – Court of Appeal clarification

We have been waiting a year for something like this, so this is quite a swift post pointing you to it and giving you the relevant quotations.

I wrote a piece for Jordans a long while ago, saying that whilst the “nothing else will do” test appears at first glance to be simple common sense English, there are a number of possibilities for what it actually really means

 

http://www.jordanpublishing.co.uk/practice-areas/family/news_and_comment/nothing-else-will-do-why-the-last-resort-won-t-necessarily-be-the-last-word

For example, which of these following definitions of ‘nothing else will do’ is actually right?

(1) There is genuinely, literally, no other option that could be conceived of.
(2) The other options available are appreciably worse for the child than adoption would be.
(3) There are other options, but they require a degree of intervention by the state (ie the local authority) that they would in effect be unworkable.
(4) There are other options, but they require a degree of intervention by the state that the state says is disproportionat (at some stage, the R v Gloucestershire County Council ex parte Barry [1997] 2 All ER 1 decision is going to come into play).
(5) There are other options, but in order to make use of them, the court would not be able to make a final decision within the 26-week PLO timetable.
(6) There are other options, but in order to make use of them, the court would not be able to make a final decision within the 8-week extension to the 26-week PLO timetable that is permissible in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
(7) There are other options, but in order to make use of them, the court would be extending the decision-making process to a point where the delay would be harmful for the child and the harm can not be justified [that is really where we have historically been].
(8) Any of the other options would cause harm to the child or carry with it a significant risk of harm to the child, and weighing up the options, adoption is the least harmful of all of the options available.
(9) Another one/ten that I have not thought of yet.

 

 

[I do sincerely apologise for quoting myself, and don’t mean to do so in a Presidential manner, it is just that I knew I’d already written somewhere else exactly what I wanted to say here, and it seemed crackers to rewrite it from scratch]

 

So, which of those is it? Do the Court of Appeal finally help?

 

Re M-H (A child) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1396.html

 

It involves an appeal from my own Designated Family Judge, so I’m rather relieved that her decision was upheld (otherwise it is slightly awkward to write about) but not my own Local Authority.

 

The appeal was brought largely on the claim that the Judge at first instance had applied the wrong test for the making of a Placement Order.

 

This is what the Court of Appeal say  (underlining as ever, mine for emphasis)

 

  1. The ‘correct test’ that must be applied in any case in which a court is asked to dispense with a parent’s consent to their child being placed for adoption is that statutorily provided by the sections 52 (1) (b) and 1 (4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 interpreted in the light of the admonitions of the President in Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146 which drew upon the judgments of the Supreme Court in In Re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria) [2013] UKSC 33 and rehearsed previous jurisprudence on the point. The “message” is clearly laid out in paragraph 22 of Re B-S and needs no repetition here.
  2. However, I note that the terminology frequently deployed in arguments to this court and, no doubt to those at first instance, omit a significant element of the test as framed by both the Supreme Court and this court, which qualifies the literal interpretation of “nothing else will do”. That is, the orders are to be made “only in exceptional circumstances and where motivated by the overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s best interests.” (See In Re B, paragraph 215). In doing so I make clear that this latter comment is not to seek to undermine the fundamental principle expressed in the judgment, merely to redress the difficulty created by the isolation and oft subsequently suggested interpretation of the words “nothing else will do” to the exclusion of any “overriding” welfare considerations in the particular child’s case.
  3. It stands to reason that in any contested application there will always be another option to that being sought. In some cases the alternative option will be so imperfect as to merit summary dismissal. In others, the options will be more finely balanced and will call for critical and often anxious scrutiny. However, the fact that there is another credible option worthy of examination will not mean that the test of “nothing else will do” automatically bites.
  4. It couldn’t possibly. Placement orders are made more often in anticipation of finding adoptive parents than with ones in mind. Plans go awry. Some adoption plans are over ambitious. Inevitably there will be a contingency plan, often for long term fostering. The fact of a contingency plan suggests that ‘something else would do at a push’, the exact counterpoint of a literal interpretation of “nothing else will do”, and it would follow that the application would therefore fail at the outset.
  5. The “holistic” balancing exercise of the available options that must be deployed in applications concerning adoption is not so as to undertake a direct comparison of what probably would be best but in order to ascertain whether or not the particular child’s welfare demands adoption. In doing so it may well be that some features of one or other option taken in isolation would produce a better outcome in one particular area for the child throughout minority and beyond. It would be intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the benefits. But this is not to say that finding one or more benefits trumps all and means that it cannot be said that “nothing else will do”. All will depend upon the judge’s assessment of the whole picture determined by the particular characteristics and needs of the child in question no doubt often informed by the harm which s/he has suffered or been exposed to.

 

Boiling that down – it does not mean that there are literally no other credible options, nor does it mean that there are no other credible options which offer benefits. It means really that the Judge must choose the right option for the child’s needs but have in mind that if the child’s needs can be met by a less drastic order that should be preferred to adoption.

 

And that if a Judge is going to make a Placement Order, the judgment will need to set out the other options, assess their credibility and explain why they have not been followed.

 

It is really about judgments being rigorous and robust and analysing the pros and cons – I think for the last nine months we have all been swept along on replacing one set of stock judicial window-dressing phrases for another, that as long as the phrase “nothing else will do” peppers the case and the documents and the judgment that will suffice.  The real message of Re B-S for me, was that the options have to be set out with proper rigour as to what they would mean for the real child in the real case.

Insert appropriate Coldplay reference here *

 
CC (Adoption application : separated applicants) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2013/4815.html

This is a decision of the High Court, relating to two married applicants who were married and living together when

(a) They were approved by the Local Authority as adopters
(b) The child was placed with them for adoption
(c) The application for adoption was lodged with the Court

BUT by the time the Court was considering whether to make the adoption application, they had separated.

This is quite an unusual situation – this is the third such reported case where this has happened and in each of them the Court has gone on to make an adoption order to both applicants determining that this is in the child’s interests.

In the first of these, Re WM (Adoption: Non-Patrial) [1997] 1 FLR 132 Johnson J was at pains to point out that

“I am not to be thought to have lent judicial support to the making of adoption orders in favour of separated couples as a general rule.”
[But, just as we saw with Re D earlier in the week, once the Court unstoppers the bottle for one case, that genie can be summoned up in others. The only way for a Judge NOT to make a precedent when doing something brand new, is to not report the case]
In this case, the statutory fly in the ointment was said to be section 42(7) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.
(7)An adoption order may not be made unless the court is satisfied that sufficient opportunities to see the child with the applicant or, in the case of an application by a couple, both of them together in the home environment have been given— .
(a)where the child was placed for adoption with the applicant or applicants by an adoption agency, to that agency, .
(b)in any other case, to the local authority within whose area the home is.
The Court recognised that the wording of the Act there is somewhat vague as to whether what is intended is that the Local Authority are able to see the child in the home AFTER the application is lodged in the preparation of their report, or whether they just need to have been able to see the child in the home of the adopters AFTER placement.

The latter was clearly met in this case, because the child had been with the adopters for a year before the application was made. The former was more tricky, since the adopters had split up fairly shortly after the application was lodged before the Court.

The Court say

There was some debate during the course of the hearing as to when the opportunities to see the child must have occurred. Must they have occurred after the adoption application has been made or can they have occurred before? There is no specific timeframe referred to in sub-section 7; it simply requires the court to be satisfied that there have been the requisite opportunities. I do not propose to deal with this issue because it is clear that, in this case, there have been ample opportunities for the local authority to see M with the applicants “together in the home environment” both before and after the application. Miss R has visited the home on many occasions. I am, accordingly, satisfied that the provisions of s. 42(7) are fulfilled.
And the Court being satisfied that there is no fly in the ointment, went on to consider the welfare checklist and give reasons why a joint adoption order is the right thing for the child.

[Incidentally, those reasons seem to give broad encouragement to anyone else in this position and would seem to support the making of a joint adoption order to anyone in a similar position in the future unless the separation was particularly acrimonious]

But were the Court looking for that fly in the right jar of ointment?

I suggest (and am grateful to Natasha Watson on this for doing all of the real brainpower and legwork) that the real legal difficulty here is in s50.

Section 50 is dealing with the circumstances in which an adoption order can be made – and then relies on a definition in s144(4).

[It was the most controversial and most debated clause of the Act – bearing in mind that this was back in 2000/2001, because it was the part of the Act that opened up the possibility of adoption by gay couples. I once had the misfortune to have to read all of the Parliamentary debates on the Adoption and Children Act and nearly 75% of the discussions were about this particular clause, so rest assured that this section had more scrutiny than any clause in modern Parliamentary history – it indisputably says what Parliament finally agreed it should say]

50 Adoption by couple.

(1)An adoption order may be made on the application of a couple where both of them have attained the age of 21 years. .
(2)An adoption order may be made on the application of a couple where— .
(a)one of the couple is the mother or the father of the person to be adopted and has attained the age of 18 years, and .
(b)the other has attained the age of 21 years.
If the Court are making an adoption order to two people, as here, it needs to be satisfied of two things :-

1. That they are both 21 or over (no problem in this case)
2. That they are a couple

The Act then defines “couple” for those purposes in s144(4)
(4)In this Act, a couple means— .
(a)a married couple, or .
(b)two people (whether of different sexes or the same sex) living as partners in an enduring family relationship.
At the time that the adoption order was being made, the two adopters here were married to one another, but were not living together. So they are married – but are they a “married couple” ?

In a common sense definition, could one really describe them as a “married couple” or even “a couple” ? If they aren’t, then they can’t have a joint adoption order.

Can you be a ‘married couple’ or described as ‘a couple’ once you’ve split up? Or are you a married couple until you get the decree absolute?
Do you want a concrete illustration? You may recall the news earlier this year that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow had ‘consciously uncoupled’ and gone their separate ways. They are still married.

Are Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow a married couple?

If they aren’t, neither are these two adopters. And on that basis, the Court is not able legally to make an adoption order to both of them.

[The Court HAS, and it is done, and it will be added to the law books as authority for the Court doing this, and next time it happens it will be relied upon as authority for the Court to do it again – but unless you would really describe Chris and Gwyneth as a ‘married couple’ then it would be a mistake in law]

Another issue that arises in relation to this is that if we are going to describe two married people who no longer live together or wish to as “a married couple” than we no longer have equality.

Look at the second limb of s144(4)
b)two people (whether of different sexes or the same sex) living as partners in an enduring family relationship.
If we are going to say that two people who are married continue to be a ‘married couple’ until they divorce, then we are no longer treating married people and people in an enduring family relationship the same.

Because married people can split up and still get the adoption order, but cohabiting people can’t.

If two people in an enduring family relationship make the adoption application and then break up before the order is made, then they would not satisfy s50.

You can’t be in an ‘enduring’ relationship once there’s a separation. By definition, it hasn’t endured.

Thus, the Court is discriminating (IF we are saying that Chris and Gwyneth are still a married couple) in favour of married people in a way that they wouldn’t do in relation to two people who were cohabiting.

[See THIS article in the Daily Mail
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2800896/marriage-no-better-cohabiting-legal-rights-abolished-adulterous-judge.html

for judicial differences of opinion as to whether married people and cohabiting people ought to have the same rights. I take no responsibility for your sense of moral well-being or compassion after reading a piece in the Daily Mail. I can save you the trouble and say that the Mail is more on the side of Coleridge (marriage is best) as opposed to Mostyn (we should stop favouring marriage over cohabitation in law) and decide that the best way to sift this debate is to indulge in personal attacks.  If Coleridge J is the sort of person to keep a scrapbook, he might have been reaching for the bottle of Gloy Gum for this one ]
I suppose that the next Court to tackle this issue can say that for the purposes of s50 and s144(4) two people who are married remain “a married couple” until such time as they divorce.

After all, just this month we have seen Judges decide that article 8 of the Human Rights Act doesn’t apply to the Court deciding private law proceedings (re Y http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed134192 – even when the Court of Appeal expressly said otherwise in Re A ) and that if a clause in statute says “must” that can be simply ignored – (Re X.
http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/3135.html )

 

 

Now, I can put an image in here – the two obvious competing ones are a nice photo of Chris Martin’s new paramour, or a bottle of Gloy Gum.

 

oh joy, it's gloy!
*Re the title, the piece is obviously crying out for a lyric or song title from Coldplay, but I’m afraid that I subscribe to the Alan McGee school of thought that they are ‘indie bedwetters” and thus I don’t have a glib reference.

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