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Step-parent adoption – telling the birth father

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The Relevant Legal Framework

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Notice of proceedings to person with foreign parental responsibility

14.4

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

and –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

Proportionality and harm

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

And this is how the parents developed that argument

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

It’s as plainly wrong as the nose on your face

In family cases now, is the appeal test “plainly wrong”  or “wrong?”  – Court of Appeal to grapple with this issue.

I remarked during my commentary on Re B, that I thought the Supreme Court might come to regret their decision that where an appellate Court is considering an appeal about threshold, there was no distinction between wrong and plainly wrong.

I didn’t think it might happen so quickly.

In Re BS (Children) 2013,  Permission was granted by MacFarlane LJ for an appeal from a decision of Parker J to refuse leave to oppose an adoption hearing, and it seems, from the reading of his decision, that he probably would have refused permission to appeal prior to Re B.

http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed114967

In particular, MacFarlane LJ felt that the issue of whether the test for appellate Courts now dealing with family appeals had lowered, in the light of Re B, from “has the applicant shown that the Judge was plainly wrong” to “has the applicant shown that the Judge was wrong”

The first of those two formulations has always been the test, and of course is a much higher hurdle, both in the appeal, and any application for permission. It reflects that with the majority of judicial decisions, a Judge might reasonably decide the case one way or another, providing that they give a detailed and reasoned judgment considering those things that are relevant and not considering things that are irrelevant, and applying the correct legal tests. With that in mind, a Court of Appeal can have all three Judges look at the case and think that they would have made a different decision to the original Judge, but still refuse the appeal, if the decision was within a reasonable spectrum of the decisions that the original Judge could have made. In essence, an appeal ought to be allowed if the Judge made a decision that on the facts before them a Judge could not have reasonably made.

You might well think that an appeal court ought to just decide if they think the judge got the case right, and that’s certainly a legitimate public debate to be had, but it isn’t what the law is.

Or at least, it wasn’t.

The problem with the Supreme Court hearing a case is that if they decide something, that can override any other previous decisions, and whilst they might, as in Re B, believe that they are making a very narrow qualification and adjustment to the law, it can result in far far bigger consequences.

Here’s what MacFarlane LJ said in the permission judgment

17. The short description of the matters I have in mind are as follows.  Firstly, at two stages in her judgment, the judge apparently referred to the test that she had to apply being a three stage test.  The judge quoted from Re W (paragraph 18), as I have just done, and then went on to say: “The second and third hurdle are conflated into one test”.  Then later in the next page of the judgment, she said again, “2nd and 3rd test have to be looked at together”.  I consider it is arguable that that displays an erroneous understanding of the test.  My reading of Re W is that the third fence that Thorpe LJ describes is one that is only faced by the parent if they succeeded in getting leave to oppose the adoption and they are sitting in court arguing the point in the full hearing.  That justifies to a degree granting permission to appeal, but if that was the only point in the case, I would have been reluctant to grant permission because the judge’s general approach to the determination of the issue before her seems to have been more generally in line with Re W and the threshold described there.

18. The second reason for granting permission to appeal arises from Re B.  First of all, in the judgments both of Lord Neuberger and of Baroness Hale, in particular at paragraphs 82 and 104 in the former, and 145, 198 and 215 in the case of the latter, very clear and firm descriptions are given of the high level of evidence that has to be established before a court can go on to make an adoption order in circumstances where the child’s parents do not consent to adoption.  Having read those judgments, and having read the Court of Appeal decision in Re W, I am concerned that the test in Re W may now need to be reconsidered in the light of the approach to adoption which has been restated in these very clear terms by the Supreme Court.  In particular, I am concerned that the words of my Lord, Thorpe LJ, that I have quoted from paragraph 17, where he describes as “exceptionally rare” a parent succeeding in an application of this sort may no longer be tenable.  Particularly I have in mind that a parent can only be in the position of making an application under section 47(5) if there has been a care order, a placement order, the placement of the child for adoption and an adoption application being lodged.  Those are the very circumstances that trigger the jurisdiction under section 47(5).

19. There is justification therefore in my view in giving leave so that the test to be applied in these applications for leave as cast in Re W can now be audited in the light of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Re B to ensure that it sets the threshold at a proportionate level.

20. Thirdly, and in a different context, each of the Justices in the Supreme Court describes the approach that is now to be taken at appellate level in relation to decisions which are not simply discretionary determinations by a judge, but are decisions which impact upon Convention rights, the human rights, of one or more of the parties.  Where an appeal takes place, Re B makes it plain that the appellate court has a duty to review the first instance judge’s compliance or otherwise with her obligation not to determine the application in a way that is incompatible with the Article 8 rights that are engaged.  Arguably such a review is, in my opinion, justified on the facts of this case.

21. Previously I would have applied a test of considering whether the prospective appellant here has a reasonable prospect of establishing that Parker J was “plainly wrong” in refusing permission to oppose.  Now it seems that the test is one that is potentially lower, namely of considering whether Parker J was “wrong”.  There is a need first of all to clarify which of those two tests does apply to an appeal of this sort on this topic, and if the lower level is applicable, namely that the judge was “wrong”, then on the facts of this case it becomes less clear that the mother has no reasonable prospect of persuading the full court that Parker J was indeed “wrong”.  That is particularly the case where, as I remind myself, the issue here is not the ultimate question of whether or not an adoption order should be made, but simply whether the mother can oppose the making of the order at a full hearing where the issue of parental consent is then determined afresh in the light of all the current circumstances.

Let’s look quickly at what the Supreme Court decided on the issue of the test for an appellant Court on threshold

They refer to all of the important cases on the test for appellant courts – G v G, Piglowska .

The Supreme Court then drew a distinction between cases where the Judge was exercising a discretion (presumably meaning that in those cases, Piglowska et al still applied, and the formulation was ‘plainly wrong’)  and cases where the Judge was not exercising a discretion, such as in answering the question as to whether threshold was met

(The underlining in this quotation from Re B is all mine, and it may help in your reading if you imagine me raising my eyebrows on those bits)

44. On any view there is nothing discretionary about a determination of whether the threshold is crossed. I consider that in the Court of Appeal Black LJ was correct, at para 9, to categorise it as, instead, a value judgement, particularly, but not only, when the court is surveying likelihood. Black LJ proceeded to adopt the approach of Ward LJ in the Court of Appeal in Re MA (Care Threshold), cited above, at para 56, that the question on an appeal against the refusal of a judge to hold that the threshold had been crossed was whether it exceeded the generous ambit of reasonable disagreement. In my judgment in that case, from the outcome of which I dissented, I asked, at para 34, whether it had been “open” to the judge to refuse to do so. In her judgment Hallett LJ asked, at para 44, whether the judge had been “plainly wrong” to refuse to do so. Although these are matters of little more than nuance, I consider in retrospect that in that case none of the three of us afforded sufficient weight to the evaluative, as opposed to the discretionary, nature of a determination whether the threshold is crossed. Ward LJ’s reference to the generous ambit of reasonable disagreement seems apt only to the review of an exercise of discretion, as in G v G. My own reference to whether the judge’s determination had been “open” to him now seems to me to have been singularly uninformative. Perhaps Hallett LJ came closest to the appropriate test in her reference to whether the determination had been “plainly wrong”. But it is generally better to allow adjectives to speak for themselves without adverbial support. What does “plainly” add to “wrong”? Either the word adds nothing or it serves to treat the determination under challenge with some slight extra level of generosity apt to one which is discretionary but not to one which is evaluative. Like all other members of the court, I consider that appellate review of a determination whether the threshold is crossed should be conducted by reference simply to whether it was wrong.

 

 

Given that the Supreme Court is binding on all of us, unless and until either Parliament changes the law, or the European Court of Human Rights says that the Supreme Court were wrong in Re B  (cough, cough), the effect of that passage is fourfold

  1. Indisputably, the test for an appeal about threshold is NOW whether the Judge was wrong, not whether the Judge was plainly wrong.
  1. As determining threshold often arises from the way a Judge determined FINDINGS of fact about an alleged injury or alleged abuse, an appeal about a Judge concluding that as a result of those findings, threshold is met, might well now be decided on “wrong” rather than “plainly wrong”
  1. The Supreme Court have developed a two tier test for appeals – one where the Judge was exercising a discretion (where they have to be plainly wrong)  and one where they are not (where they just have to be wrong)
  1. Given that the Supreme Court forgot to set out a test for which category any given decision would fall into, there is going to be satellite ligitation, as here as to which category the case falls into.

For what it is worth, my own view is that on the Re B  “plainly wrong v wrong” issue, the existing caselaw on refusing / granting leave to oppose an adoption order is extraordinarily plain that the Judge is exercising a discretion and thus I believe that it is untouched.

Having said that, I still cannot FATHOM why the Supreme Court considered that in determining whether threshold was met, the Court was not exercising judicial discretion, still less that this was the case “on any view”  and when one looks at what a Judge has to do when determining if given behaviour or allegations of such behaviour constitutes the threshold criteria, it is hard to argue that such process is markedly different to the test in the leave to oppose adoption (does the change warrant a reopening of the case).

I can see potentially that if a Court found that there HAD BEEN NO change in circumstances (the first limb of the test in leave to oppose adoption), post Re B, an appeal about that would probably be on the basis of whether the Judge was wrong, the second limb (given that change, is it in the child’s interests to reopen the case) would, in my mind, be on the basis of whether the Judge was plainly wrong.

But until the Court of Appeal tell us what they think about any suggestions that the Re B formulation will bleed out beyond simply threshold cases, we won’t know. Nor do we know whether that ‘wrong’ versus ‘plainly wrong’ formulation will bleed out into cases much wider than the Children Act 1989 and Adoption and Children Act 2002.

I remain amazed, that the Supreme Court ever considered that introducing a two tier test for appeals, and not clearly setting out how one is to sift categories, was something that they needed to do, or that it was ‘little more than nuance’

Emotional wrecks

Following the Supreme Court decision in Re B yesterday, which we hoped would tackle the four issues on which leave to appeal was granted :-

(i) the meaning of significant harm;

(ii) the relationship between the nature and gravity of the harm which is feared and the degree of likelihood of that harm being suffered in the future;

 (iii) the proportionality of a care order with a care plan for adoption in a case such as this; and

(iv) the proper approach of the Court of Appeal to a finding that the threshold has been crossed, and (although this was not expressly referred to) to the issue of proportionality.

 

And I shall leave it to others to debate whether or not they successfully clarified those points (save for (iv) which they undoubtedly did tackle, some might say at the expense of the 3 more important issues)

 

But it made me think about emotional harm post Re B, and some hypothetical examples to debate.  In each of these hypothetical examples :-

 

(i)                 The child is well fed, well cared for, their basic needs are met

(ii)               They are not hit, or sexually abused or neglected

(iii)             The parents are not drug addicts or alcohol abusers

(iv)              The parental behaviour complained of is just simply as is set out baldy and nothing else

(v)                All efforts to divert them from this behaviour has been unsuccessful to date

 

I make those caveats so that it is clear what we are debating is ‘pure emotional harm’, not the emotional harm that accompanies neglect, or physical or sexual abuse.

 

Have a look at the examples, if you would and consider whether you think (a) that it is appropriate for the State to intervene in this family’s life by issuing proceedings (b) whether the section 31 threshold is crossed and (c) whether the Court might consider it proportionate to make an order, if – as in Re B, all prospect of the parent being able to address that behaviour were not successful.

 

 

Example 1

 

 

The parent routinely tells the child that they are worthless, that they will never amount to anything, that the parent is ashamed of them, that they are fat and ugly and unloveable,  that even their parents don’t love them, that they will be a failure in life.

 

Example 2

The child wants more than anything to grow up to be a professional footballer, and the parent routinely tells the child that they are no good at football, that they aren’t getting any better at it, that they have no chance of becoming a footballer and that they are not going to be able to do it for a living.

 Example 3

The parent routinely tells the child that once you are an adult, “you shouldn’t knock it till you’ve tried it” and that they should try cocaine, heroin, amphetamines for themselves once they become an adult. The parent also makes it plain that once the child is an adult, if they want to try drugs, they do so with parental blessing and the parent will provide them with funds if they wish to do so.

 

Example 4

The parent has strong Marxist beliefs/no conscience about personal property, and regularly tells the child that “all property is theft” and that once the child reaches adulthood, it is perfectly legitimate, if they so wish, to steal things if they want them or need them. They make it clear that their view is that only a fool would work and save up for something when it is so easy to just take it from someone else.

 They themselves steal to supplement their lifestyle, and the home is full of luxury goods that they could not afford and they make no secret of how they obtained them. They do, however, not involve the child in any theft (either as witness or accomplice) and stress to the child that until they reach the age of 18, they should not steal anything.

 

Example 5

The parent routinely tells the child that the Holocaust never happened. They make it plain that Jewish people have lied about it, and that any small number of Jews who did die deserved it. They communicate to the child that books and television programmes or films that claim otherwise are lies and that the creators of such material cannot be trusted.

 

 

Example 6

 

The parents believe in reincarnation and karma, and routinely tell the child that people who die of terminal illnesses or have disabilities have these problems because they did bad things in a former life and are paying for them.

 

 

[I will stress that none of these are actual cases or even small features of actual cases, they are purely hypothetical examples of ways that a parent could behave which may lead the State to question whether the behaviour amounts to significant harm. I also stress that I am not attempting to claim that post Re B, all of these examples WOULD meet threshold or that a Local Authority would issue on them even if they did, rather to simply debate whether they are CAPABLE of meeting threshold and whether there is consensus about which that do or not, or whether there is uncertainty. ]

 

 

Do any of them, on their own, cross threshold?

 

Supreme Court and emotional harm

The Supreme Court judgment in Re B is out, and can be read in full here:-

 

http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0022_Judgment.pdf

For the too-long didn’t read version, the parents lost. The case was hoped to clarify emotional harm, and whether it justifies State intervention, and whether the risk of future emotional harm (when it becomes somewhat tenuous and predictive) justifies the most draconian of orders, a plan for adoption.

There was an excellent preview of the case by Celtic Knot over on Pink Tape, here

http://pinktape.co.uk/cases/rescuing-children-from-significant-harm-looking-forward-with-trepidation-and-hope/

and it sets out the backdrop to this case very clearly and why it was that he and I were both hoping that the parents would succeed. In all of this debate, I am mindful that  (a) I haven’t had the chance to read or hear all of the evidence and (b) that the case sadly involves real people and a real child.  Sadly, as it has important principles, it is something that needs to be discussed in broader terms than just the tragedy for the immediate family.

Frankly, my reading of the Re B Court of Appeal decision was that there was a lot that professionals were worried about or anxious about, but none of it actually amounted to proof that the child was at risk of significant harm. [I stress, this may very well be a fault of the Court of Appeal judgment in not properly framing how they found threshold to be crossed, rather than on professionals involved in the case]

 

I think the closest it came to threshold was in this passage here

It was the diagnosis of Dr Bass, which Judge Cryan accepted, that, beyond  abnormal personality traits and in additi on to, and more significantly than, her  somatisation disorder, M suffers a factitious  disorder of mild to moderate intensity.

This is a related psychiatric disorder in  which the sufferer is driven repeatedly to exaggerate symptoms or altogether to fabricate them and to offer false histories.

There is therefore a deceptive dimension to  the disorder which was replicated in a  mass of other evidence before the judg e, unrelated to M’s medical condition,  which raised questions about  her ability, and for that matter  also the ability of F, to behave honestly with professionals. Dr Bass  stressed that M’s psychiatric disorders required psychotherapy which might last for a year and which could be undertaken  only if she were to acknowledge the problems and to engage honestly with the therapist.

 

 

Undoubtedly within the case, and the Supreme Court gave multiple examples, there had been incidents where claims had been made by M which the Court found to be untrue, and they were florid claims. That much, I don’t disagree with.  The decision of the Court of Appeal that this crossed the threshold seemed, to me, to fall short on the critical area of actual evidence that it HAD harmed the child or was a risk of harming the child, and not merely in nebulous “Jedi-hand-wave” terms – what was it that was said the parents might do that would harm this child, and how likely was it that they would do it?

 

The original trial judge said this:-

The judge concluded: “Ultimately, I find that I am persuaded… that what the evidence  clearly demonstrates is that these parents do not have the capacity to  engage with professionals in such  a way that their behaviour will be  either controlled or amended to  bring about an environment where  [Amelia] would be safe… In short I cannot see that there is any  sufficiently reliable way that I can fulfil my duty  to [Amelia] to  protect her from harm and still place her with her parents. I  appreciate that in so saying I am depriving her of a relationship  which, young though she  is, is important to  her and depriving her  and her parents of that family life which this court strives to promote.”

 

Again, that seems to me to be a legitimate decision for the Judge who heard the evidence to take ONCE it was established that the threshold was crossed. If there WAS a risk of harm, then whether the parents could manage that harm, take advice, work with professionals and change their behaviour is massively relevant.

But did we ever cross the threshold on the facts as reported?

My fundamental issue is this – if one cannot put into a paragraph, or a page, what harm it was that the State was protecting this child from, I am not sure that the harm is actually properly made out. [Not a criticism of the LA involved – I  haven’t read the papers, I don’t know the whole case, but from the twin judgments I have seen, I don’t see anything that comes close to telling the parents, or the public, what it was that this child was being protected FROM – other than very peculiar behaviour short of abuse]

 

One focus of the appeal was the wording of the threshold criteria (the test that the State has to cross before a Care Order can be made) which is “significant harm”  and whether the law has wrongly developed to an extent where it is now hard to see the distinction, in law, between harm and significant harm.

 

If one were to get a family lawyer to draw up two columns, one headed Harm, and one headed Significant Harm, and then gave them a series of allegations, would all of the family lawyers put each allegation in the same column ? would there be broad consistency about which is which, perhaps with a few grey areas? Or in fact, would nearly everything go into the “significant harm” column.

 

Here is what the Supreme Court have to say

26.  In my view this court should avoid attempting to explain the word “significant”. It would be a gloss; attention might then turn to the meaning of the  gloss and, albeit with the best of intentions, the courts might find in due course that they had travelled far from  the word itself. Nevertheless it might be worthwhile to  note that in the White Paper which preceded the 1989 Act, namely The Law on  Child Care and Family Services, Cm 62, January 1987, the government stated, at para 60:

“It is intended that “likely ha rm” should cover all cases of unacceptable risk in which it may be necessary to balance the chance of the harm occurring against the magnitude of that harm if it does”

The Supreme Court also rejected the applicant’s submission that when a Court determines whether or not the threshold is crossed, article 8 is engaged, and determined that article 8 only arises when the Court are deciding whether or not to make an order.   [I can’t say that i am happy about THAT either]

 

The second matter relates to Mr Feehan’s submission that the threshold set  by section 31(2) is not crossed if the deficits relate only to the character of the parents rather than to the quality of their parenting. His alternative submission is  that harm suffered or likely to be suffered by a child as a result of parental action or inaction may cross the threshold only if,  in so acting or failing to act, the parent or parents were deliberately or intentionally to have caused or to be likely to cause such harm. M is, of course, not responsible for her personality traits nor for her psychiatric disorders; and in effect the submission is that the dishonesty,animosities and obstructionism of the parents represent deficits only of character

and that, if and insofar as they might cause harm to Amelia,whom they love, the harm is neither deliberate nor intentional

 

This is an interesting one, taking us into issues of free will and determinism. I would agree partly with Mr Feehan QC  - I think that the threshold ought to get into quality of parenting or how the parenting impacts on the child, but I don’t go as far as saying that a parent is not responsible for elements of their personality which are beyond their control. (The latter, seems to me, to invite later ligitation on the basis of paedophilia being intrinsic to a person, rather than a conscious or deliberate choice on their part)

The Supreme Court rejected this anyway.  

 

One interesting addition from the Supreme Court was their debate about whether, when deciding whether a lower Court had mistakenly found threshold to be crossed (or vice versa) the test for the appellant Court should be the usual one (derived from Piglowska) that the Court had been “plainly wrong”  or whether in the context of the threshold, which is a binary value judgment – the evidence is there to satisfy it, or it is not, the test should simply be whether they were “wrong”

it is generally better to allow adjectives to speak for themselves without adverbial  support. What does “plainly” add to “wrong”? Either the word adds nothing or it serves to treat the determination under challenge with some slight extra level of generosity apt to one which is discretionary but not to one which is evaluative.

Like all other members of the court, I  consider that appellate review of a  determination whether the threshold is crossed should be conducted by reference  simply to whether it was wrong.

 

 

I think they may come to regret that formulation.

 

Going to the issue of threshold this passage in the judgment outlines why the majority of the Judges found that it was met and the decision was not wrong

The nature of the harm which concerned Judge Cryan was (i) “the emotional harm to [Amelia] likely to be caused by” (a) “the Mother’s somatisation disorder and factitious illness disorder”,

(b) “concerns … about the parents’ personality traits”,

(c) “her mother’s lying”,

(d) her father’s “active, but less chronic, tendency to dishonest

y and vulnerability to the misuse of drugs”, and

(ii) “physical harm to [Amelia]” which “can not be discounted, for example, by over treatment or inappropriate treatment by doctors”.

As to the possibility of such harm being prevented or acceptably mitigated, the Judge concluded that Amelia’s parents did not have “the capacity to engage with professionals in such a way that their behaviour will either be controlled or amended to bring about an environment where [Amelia] would be safe”. He explained that the result of this was that he could think of no “sufficiently reliable way” in which he could “fulfil [his] duty”

to Amelia “to protect her from harm and still place her with her parents”.

 

66. Those conclusions are concerned with what may be characterised as risks, prospects or possible outcomes, and they

are not, therefore, findings of primary fact, let alone conclusions of law. As explained above, they are evaluations based

on the findings of primary fact, and on assessments of character and likely behaviour and attitudes, made by the Judge

as a result of many days of considering oral and written evidence and also as a result of hearing argument. They are

evaluations which are also plainly dependant on the Judge’s overall assessment of  the witnesses, and in particular on his opinion as to the character and dependability of Amelia’s mother and father, and as tothe reliability of the assessments of the expert witnesses. His conclusions appear to me to be ones to which, to put it at its lowest, he was fully entitled to come on the evidence he had heard and assessed. In other words, they were justified in terms of logic and common sense in the light of his findings of primary fact and his assessment of the witnesses, and they were coherently formulated. There is no basis in my view, for saying that they were wrong.

 

Sadly, to me, it seems that the Supreme Court have tackled this case in that very narrow way, rather than comparing the threshold said to be met in this case with the doctrines of Lord Templeman and Justice Hedley, about the difference between abusive parenting which harms a child or is likely to harm a child, and eccentric odd or even poor parenting which falls short of that mark.  I slightly have to wonder why they agreed to hear the appeal at all if they were not going to roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue of emotional harm. They just really said that it was a matter for the trial judge which side of the line the case fell on, unless it was apparent that he had got that wrong.

 

Lady Hale in her judgment, which in my mind actually tackled the issues and concluded in the dissenting judgment that the original judge was wrong to have made a Care Order,  sets out what practitioners felt was the key issue in the case in her opening paragraphs

 

143. This case raises some profound questions about the scope of courts’ powers to take away children from their birth families when what is feared is, not physical abuse or neglect, but emotional or psychological harm. We are all frail human beings, with our fair share of unattractive character traits, which sometimes manifest themselves in bad behaviours which may be copied by our children. But the State does not and cannot take away the children of all the people who commit crimes, who abuse alcohol or drugs, who suffer from physical or mental illnesses or disabilities, or who espouse anti-social political or religious beliefs. Indeed, in Dickson v United Kingdom (2007) 46 EHRR 937, the Strasbourg court held that the refusal of artificial insemination facilities to a convicted murderer and the wife whom he had met while they were both in prison was a breach of their rights under article 8 of the European Convention.

 

How is the law to distinguish between emotional or psychological harm, which warrants the compulsory intervention of the State, and the normal and natural tendency of children to grow up to be and behave like their parents?

 

144.Added to this is the problem that the harm which is feared may take many years to materialise, if indeed it ever does. Every child is an individual, with her own character and personality. Many children are remarkably resilient. They do not all inherit their parents’ less attractive characters or copy their less attractive behaviours. Indeed some will consciously reject them. They have many other positive influences in their lives which can help them to resist the negative, whether it is their schools, their friends, or other people around them. How confident do we have to be that a child will indeed suffer harm because of her parents’ character and behaviour before we separate them for good?

 

Hear hear

 

 

Sadly all of this next bit is by the by, since it is from the dissenting judgment, but I think it is all correct, and I wish it were an accurate reflection of what the law was, post Re B

The reason for adopting a comparatively low threshold of likelihood is clear: some harm is so catastrophic that even a relatively small degree of likelihood should be sufficient to justify the state in intervening to protect the child before it happens, for example from death or serious injury or sexual abuse. But it is clear that Lord Nichollsdid not contemplate that a relatively small degree of likelihood would be sufficient in all cases.

 

The corollary of “the more serious the harm, the less likely it has to be” is that “the less serious the harm, the more likely it has to be”.

 

 

Of course, another reason for adopting a test of “real possibility”, rather than “more likely than not”, is that it is extremely difficult to predict the future and to do so with the sort of accuracy which would enable a court to say that it was more likely than not that a parent would harm a child in the future. Once again, this is a particular problem with emotional or psychological harm, which may take many years to manifest itself. The Act does not set limits upon when the harm may be likely to occur and clearly the court is entitled to look to the medium and longer term as well as to the child’s immediate future.

 

190 However, the longer term the prospect of harm, the greater the degree of uncertainty about whether it will actually happen. The child’s resilience or resistance, and the many protective influences at work in the community, whether from the wider family, their friends, their neighbourhoods, the health and social services and, perhaps above all, their schools, mean that it may never happen. The degree of likelihood must be such as justify compulsory intervention now, for there is always the possibility of compulsory intervention later, should the “real possibility” solidify

191. The second element in the threshold sheds some light upon these questions. The harm, or the likelihood of harm, must be “attributable to the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if an order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him”(s 31(2)(b)). This reinforces the view that it is a deficiency in parental care, rather than in parental character, which must cause the harm. It also means that the court should be able to identify what that deficiency in care might be and how likely it is to happen.

 

For my part, I am unsure why the other Judges did not share those views, they seem to me eminently sensible and fair. In reality, it is merely a sieve to remove the sort of cases that Lord Templeman and Hedley LJ were referring to as being short of the level of parenting that requires State intervention.

I also feel somewhat for Lady Hale, who has given excellent judgments in many of the Supreme Court cases but seems to be being characterised as the dissenter who does not sway the majority.

Supreme Court to give judgment on emotional harm case on 12th June

An interesting report from Family Law Week, confirming that the Re B case will be determined by the Supreme Court on 12th June, and I will write about it as soon as I get the judgment

 http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed114264

 The Court of Appeal decision is one that I blogged about here :-

 http://suesspiciousminds.com/2012/11/16/lies-and-the-lying-liars-who-tell-them/

 The reason that the case is important is that the threshold in the case was based entirely on emotional harm. I disagree with some of my readers about how prevalent that is  (my own experience of many, many Local Authorities over many, many years is that whilst emotional harm is a facet of lots of cases, I have NEVER picked up a case where the threshold contained nothing other than emotional harm. Ian Josephs says fairly that the people who come to him are invariably emotional harm cases). 

At the very least, it is plain that emotional harm is a controversial basis for separation of families, and it is probably the greyest area that we currently have, so it is good to see it being tackled.

 On the facts reported in Re B, I thought that the Court of Appeal were wrong in finding that the threshold was made out, and wrong further in moving to the conclusion that this meant that permanent separation was justified.  My heart is with the parents on this one, I have to say.

 There were certainly issues with the parents and there was certainly a suggestion that there would have been unusual features of the way the child would be brought up, but I did not see in the judgment I read evidence that the child was being harmed or likely to be harmed by it.

 

A classic bit of Hedley J, as far as I was concerned

 

Re L (Care threshold criteria) 2006  ”Society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent. It follows too that children will inevitably have both very different experiences of parenting and very unequal consequences flowing from it. It means that some children will experience disadvantage and harm, whilst others flourish in atmospheres of loving security and emotional stability. These are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the State to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting. In any event, it simply could not be done. … It would be unwise to a degree to attempt an all embracing definition of significant harm. One never ceases to be surprised at the extent of complication and difficulty that human beings manage to introduce into family life.”

 

As some people remarked to me at the time, there must have been more to it than came out in the Court of Appeal judgment. That might be the case, but in which case, I consider there to be a fault in the judgment  – if a parent is to be separated from their child by the State, the least we can offer them is a fair judgment that sets out plainly why that has to be the case.

 I think it is important that if the State is removing children for emotional harm, which is such a slippery concept to pin down (as opposed to fractures, sexual abuse or even neglect), it is important to have some parameters as to what that might mean, and where the bright line is between unusual and eccentric parenting and harmful parenting.

I will be interested to see what the Supreme Court makes of this, and as an incidental, I think Lord Clarke of Stone-cum-Ebony has a great, great title.  I have vowed, and will hold to it, that in the vanishingly unlikely event that the Government go bananas and make me a peer of the realm, I shall go by the name of Lord Vader, but that title does tempt me. Perhaps I could be Lord Ebony-cum-Ivory…

 

 

 

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