A consideration of the High Court decision in Re RCW v A Local Authority 2012 , and the need to be very careful when making decisions to remove a child from prospective adopters
There is an excellent summary and discussion of the case at Family Lore, and is actually so good that I nearly didn’t write this piece, but I thought I might be able to find something fresh to say, even if it won’t be so pithy.
In essence, it related to a challenge by a woman who had been intending to adopt a child. The child had been with her for 10 weeks (this being the exact period of time that the child would need to be placed with prospective adopters before the formal adoption application could be lodged) and then the carer had an operation, having slightly earlier been diagnosed as having a brain tumour, and that operation tragically left her without sight.
The LA decided that they would wish to remove the child from her care. As a matter of strict law, prior to the prospective adopter making an application for adoption, they believed that they were able to do so.
The timing was very tight – the carer lodged her application for adoption, and on the same day received a letter from the LA indicating that they proposed to move the child. (The LA decision therefore pre-dated, though only just, the carer applying for an adoption order)
[The removal is under s35(2) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002
- Section 35(2) of the ACA 2002 provides that:
“Where a child is placed for adoption by an adoption agency, and the agency –
(a) Is of the opinion that the child should not remain with the prospective adopters, and
(b) gives notice to them of its opinion
The prospective adopters must, not later than the end of the period of seven days beginning with the giving of the notice, return the child to the agency”.
And the provision which protects a carer who has LODGED an adoption application is s35(5) of the same Act
- Section 35(5) provides:
(a) an adoption agency gives notice under subsection (2) in respect of a child,
(b) before the notice was given, an application for an adoption order … was made in respect of the child, and
(c) the application (…) has not been disposed of
Prospective adopters are not required by virtue of the notice to return the child to the agency unless the court so orders.”
And the timing here was so critical that it might be said that the adoption application was after the s35(2) decision to remove, so there was not necessarily protection under s35(5)
Hence the prospective adopter seeking an injunction under the Human Rights Act to prevent them removing the child, which was the only avenue open to her.
She had not been involved in any discussions or meetings with the Local Authority about this change of plan, which of course came at a god awful time for the woman; she learning of it on the day of her discharge from hospital.
The case can be found here
The Judge, Mr Justice Cobb, you will be pleased to hear (unless you are a reader from the LA in question, in which case sorry to rub salt in the wounds) granted the injunction, preventing the LA from removing the child, and was critical of the decision-making process.
The Judge concluded additionally, that the carer had the shield of section 35 (5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, principally because the notice has to be in writing, so although she had been told in a telephone call that the LA proposed to remove BEFORE her adoption application had been lodged, the written notice came AFTER. Her prompt action in lodging the application got her that protection.
But the Judge went further, and said that regardless of the timing and sequence of events, the process by which the LA reached their decision to give notice of their intention to remove under s35(2) was flawed
- A decision to remove a child who has been placed with prospective adopters is a momentous one. It has to be a solidly welfare-based decision, and it must be reached fairly. LBX discussed its plans to remove SB from the care of RCW at two meetings referred to in the chronology above; the decision was made on 30 January 2013 and communicated to RCW shortly thereafter by telephone. I have not yet seen the minutes of the planning meetings at which the decision to remove SB was made (it has been indicated that Mr M’s notes can be made available forthwith, and they should be). But it is difficult to identify on what material LBX could truly contend that it had reached a proper welfare-based evaluation; there had been limited direct observation and assessment by that time, no apparent discussions with the friends and supporters, and little knowledge of RCW’s condition or, more pertinently, its likely prognosis.
- I do not believe that RCW was invited to either of the meetings at which the future placement of SB was discussed (indeed, she was still in hospital at the time of the first meeting). There is nothing in the statements before me which indicates that RCW’s specific views about her ability to care for SB for the future, her support network, or the impact of her condition on her life were sought or obtained; it does not appear that RCW was given any opportunity to make representations at the meeting.
- On the information before me I am satisfied that LBX failed to give RCW a full and informed opportunity to address its concerns about the future care arrangements for SB. In this respect, LBX had acted in breach of the procedural rights guaranteed by Article 8 and Article 6, and of the common law principle of fairness.
- LBX’s difficulties in defending its decision on fairness grounds are substantially compounded by its acknowledgement that when reaching its decision to remove SB it did not know (and does not know) whether RCW’s visual impairment is temporary or permanent. If the disability proves to be temporary, and RCW is able to resume her life as she led it prior to 8 January 2013, LBX would have no basis for intervening in the care arrangements.
The argument of course, would be that had the carer been involved in the process and her views and position taken into account, that she may well have been able to advance a plan for caring for the child which would meet the child’s needs, notwithstanding her visual impairment; and that the LA had effectively jumped the gun in just unilaterally deciding that if she was sightless she could not care for the child.
- Visual impairment does not of itself disqualify an adult from being a capable loving parent. In my judgment, the ability for RCW to provide good emotional care for SB (probably with support) needs to be properly assessed. It was not fairly assessed on 24 January 2013 when the social worker visited RCW’s home so soon after RCW’s discharge from hospital. LBX can only point to one example (from the visit on that day) where they maintain that SB’s needs were not being met.
- I do not accept that this observation necessarily supports the proposition that RCW is unable to meet SB’s needs; even if it did, it would be grossly unfair to make any judgment about the long-term ability of RCW to meet the needs of SB on the basis of an assessment made on the day on which RCW left hospital and returned home. One can only imagine the tumult of emotions which RCW must have been feeling on that day – joy and relief to be home and with SB; sickening anxiety and possibly despair at her new disability.
- In my judgment, LBX’s decision to remove SB was reached on an incomplete assessment of the current situation, and in a manner which was unfair to RCW. I stop short of finding that the assumptions which the authority has made about parenting by a carer who is blind are discriminatory, but in ruling RCW out as a prospective carer so summarily, LBX has shown a worrying lack of enquiry into the condition or the potential for good care offered by a visually impaired parent.
Of course, the very agency which was to provide this carer with support and assistance as a result of her new-found disability was the Local Authority, albeit under different legislation, and rather than getting together with such supportive provisions to see what could be done to preserve the situation and allow the carer to care for the child, the LA had reached the decision that the child could not remain there.
The Court referred to the earlier decision of Mr Justice Charles in DL and Another v London Borough of Newham 2011
in which the Court considered that before issuing a notice under s35(2) the LA ought properly to discuss their concerns and reasons for contemplating this with the carers.
The Courts have also established that not only an article 6 right exists in relation to such decisions, but that the carer has an article 8 right to family life which must be taken into account.
I know that it is often said, and I sometimes say it myself (though more verbosely) that the law is an ass, but sometimes, as in this case, the law gets it very right, and prevents a terrible injustice happening.