Thankfully such cases are relatively rare – not perhaps as rare as one would hope – a third of female homicide victims are killed by their current or former partner (the figures for male homicide victims are 6% – males can of course be the victims of abuse, not just the perpetrators).
Dreadfully, the Home Office crime statistics reflected in 2001 and 2005 that this represented two women per week. (And even worse, if that is possible, the statistic that treating the physical injuries from domestic violence accounts for 3% of the annual NHS budget – Wellby 2004)
In such a case, what ought the Local Authority to do about it?
The High Court addressed the issue in Re N v B and Others 2013
The children’s father had killed the mother and was imprisoned as a result. The children went to stay with their maternal grandmother, who in due course applied for an adoption order in relation to them. There was considerable debate before the Court as to whether adoption or Special Guardianship was the right order to make – there being no dispute whatsoever that the placement with grandmother was the right one.
The Court analysed the issues to be taken into account when making such a decision very carefully
22. The paramount consideration of the court when considering this issue is the welfare of the child throughout his life, in accordance with section 1 Adoption and Children Act 2002 (‘ACA 2002’). The court must consider which order will better serve the welfare of the particular child (per Wall LJ Re S (Adoption Order or Special Guardianship)  EWCA Civ 54 at para 47 (iii)). There is no presumption in favour of one order or the other, each case turns on its own facts. In accordance with ss 47 and 52 ACA 2002 in considering an adoption order the court needs to consider whether the welfare of the child requires the consent of the father to be dispensed with.
23. One of the relevant considerations in this case is whether an adoption order would skew the family relationships in the grandmother’s home. The grandmother’s brother is the father’s father; the children’s parents were first cousins. The children live with the grandmother and maternal aunts and uncles. They have contact with another maternal aunt who lives nearby with her husband and son, and their great maternal aunts who also live nearby. In the event of an adoption order their maternal grandmother would become their adoptive mother. Their aunts and uncles would become their legal half siblings. The paternal grandfather would become their paternal uncle and the father their first cousin. Following the death of the mother the grandmother has severed all contact with her brother and his family.
24. This shift in family relationships, in the event of an adoption order being made, was explained in some detail to the grandmother by a Senior Practitioner in the Local Authority Adoption Team, as described in the special guardianship report. She notes the grandmother had an understanding of the consequent shift in legal relationships throughout the family in the event of an adoption order being made.
25. InS v B and Newport City Council: Re K  1 FLR 1116 the impact of an adoption order in family placements was considered important by Mr Justice Hedley, when refusing to make an adoption order in favour of a special guardianship order. At paragraph 22, following a review of the underlying policy for adoption, he stated
‘One purpose of adoption is of course to give lifelong status to carers where otherwise it would not exist. In familial placement, that is not necessary because family status exists for life in any event. That is not to say that a familial placement may never be secured by adoption. One can imagine cases where the need for security against aggressive parents, including forensic aggression, may be overwhelming.’
26. The skewing of familial relationships is clearly an important factor to put in the balance.
27. Another important factor is the concern the grandmother has about the father seeking to exercise his parental responsibility.
The last point was a particularly significant one here, since under a Special Guardianship Order, the grandmother would have found herself in the position of having to regularly consult with the father (who was after all, the man who killed her daughter) about the children’s upbringing, whereas an adoption order would end his parental responsibility. The counterpoint to that is that it alters legally the relationship between the children, such that their grandmother becomes in law, legally their mother, their aunt becomes their sister, any cousins would become their nieces and nephews (and oddly, that their birth mother, becomes legally their deceased sister)
The Court concluded that in the circumstances of this case, the advantages of adoption far outweighed those of Special Guardianship
31. I have reached the clear conclusion, in the particular circumstances of this case the welfare of each of these children throughout their lives can only be met by an adoption order being made rather than a special guardianship order. I have reached that conclusion for the following reasons:
(1) What both children need now and for the rest of their minority and beyond is a secure home. That is what their grandmother can provide, supported by the maternal family who live there or nearby. They wish to remain in her care. As the Children’s Guardian submitted there is no birth parent that can care for them.
(2) Although it is right that an adoption order would skew family relationships I am confident that despite the shift in family relationships that would follow, the children will know the realities of the relationships within the family. That is clear from the grandmother’s recent statement and the observation in the special guardianship report that the grandmother and the family are ‘secure in their knowledge of the children’s identities and they know the children’s histories’. This view is supported by the conclusions of the Children’s Guardian at paragraphs 24 – 26 of his report.
(3) In this particular case a powerful consideration is the need for the grandmother not to have to share parental responsibility with the father. Particularly in circumstances where I am satisfied, from what the father has said, that he is likely to try and exercise it, even with a restriction under s 91 (14) and other restrictions under s 8. As recently as December 2012 he was declaring that it was unfair for him not to have contact with the children; that he will keep trying and will not give up; he seeks to maintain parental responsibility and will be able to carry on seeking contact with the children. The spectre of such applications will undermine the security of the placement that is so essential to the children’s future stability.
(4) Bearing in mind the background to the criminal offences the maternal family fear manipulation by the father, directly or indirectly, so that he could control the children’s lives. In the circumstances of this case that fear is very real due to the background of the father’s behaviour, and is confirmed by the papers in the court bundle from the criminal proceedings. In particular the psychiatric report, the pre-sentence report and the sentencing remarks from the Crown Court. He was described in the pre sentence report as being extremely controlling and highly dangerous. From what I have read I wholly agree with that description. I am satisfied that a special guardianship order, even supported with orders made under s 8 and 91 (14) CA 1989 severely controlling the father’s ability to exercise his parental responsibility, will not, in the circumstances of this case, provide the lifelong security that these children need in being securely placed with their grandmother.
(5) The grandmother has carefully considered the consequences of adoption and the lifelong nature of adoption. They have been explained to her by the senior practitioner from the adoption team, as set out in detail in the special guardianship report. She understands the change to the children’s birth certificate would mean that the mother’s name and details would be removed. She does not plan to change the children’s names.
(6) In her most recent statement the grandmother deals with the religious objections raised by the father to an adoption order. She sets out very clearly how she sees the adoption of the children by her in the circumstances of this case (where she does not intend to change the names, and where any limited inheritance consequences can be covered by putting arrangements in place). She is satisfied, in the circumstances of this case, with the arrangements that would be put in place by her, that adoption is acceptable under Islamic law. I agree. This is endorsed by the Children’s Guardian, who says he is confident the family can manage this with sensitivity and support.
(7) I agree with the recommendation of the Children’s Guardian that permanence and long term safeguarding for the children can only be guaranteed through the making of an adoption order. For the reasons outlined above it is the order that best meets their long term welfare needs.
In those circumstances, I will dispense with the father’s consent as the welfare needs of each of the children, in my judgment, demand I do so.
The Court was very critical of the Local Authority, who had been directed to file a section 37 report and did so very very late – 3 ½ months late (despite the circumstances of the case being one that an outsider might imagine that the LA would take seriously)
I imagine that this sentence may crop up in submissions in family law cases (in combination with the recent decision of Mr Justice Cobb that a Local Authority can be hit for costs when failing to undertake a proper s37 report)
I am quite satisfied the obligation is on the party seeking an extension of time to apply for one (in the absence of any other direction being given by the court). The court had made an order and the expectation is that it will be complied with.
(i.e, don’t just submit the report late, seek permission of the Court to do so in advance of the report being late. )
But then this bit is particularly important for Local Authorities
35. I wholly endorse the guidance given by Mrs Justice Hogg in Re A and B  EWHC 3824 (Fam) in particular paragraph 2 which provides
“The local authority should give immediate consideration to the issue of proceedings and, whether it considers it appropriate or inappropriate to issue proceedings immediately, it should appoint a social worker specifically for the affected sibling group who should offer immediate practical help and keep the decision under constant review in conjunction with the local authority’s legal department.”
And this bit from the same case is important too
In the majority of cases the surviving parent with parental responsibility will be in custody or otherwise unable to exercise parental responsibility. In the aftermath of the killing there will be strong emotions on both sides of the extended family. It is critical therefore that the local authority is able to undertake that function. Any dispute regarding the responsible designated authority should be resolved at an early stage and should not cause initial assessments to be delayed. It is not appropriate to leave the extended family to attempt to resolve matters through private law proceedings. In the event that the case comes before the court as private law proceedings in the first instance then the court should direct that a Section 37 report is prepared by the relevant local authority
My initial thought was that it might not be utterly straightforward to establish that the threshold criteria was made out, and I had quite a long rambling discussion about that, which I can spare you all from.
The other reported case of Re A and B 2010 http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed82613 initially did not seem to help, as the threshold was dealt with by this single line
All parties agreed that the threshold criteria set out in Section 31 had been crossed in that the children had suffered significant harm by reason of their mother’s death at the hands of their father.
But the High Court later go on to say :-
1. In all cases where one parent has been killed by the other the threshold criteria will be met.
And thus, no further enquiry into the nature of the harm is needed. One does not need to explore how that harm is said to have manifested or would need to be evidenced. I can’t actually think of any other situation where threshold is so black and white – there’s no mitigation, no case specific issues, threshold is simply met in those circumstances.
(That of course, inadvertently means that a parent who kills the other in self-defence, perhaps during a violent assault by the other, has crossed the threshold and has significantly harmed the child; but crossing the threshold does not of course mean that the children would be removed. What about where one parent is driving, perhaps drunk and the passenger is killed? The surviving parent might well be charged with Causing Death by Dangerous Driving – it seems that the threshold would be crossed there as well)
Whilst one immediately thinks that it is one of the gravest offences that a human can commit and thus of course threshold is met, we know from many authorities, most recently Re J that being responsible or jointly responsible for the death of a child does not mean that the threshold is met in relation to other children in the future.
Local Authorities would need to be alert to cases where a parent murders the other, to ensure that they seize themselves of the matter and provide services and support to help meet the children’s needs at this dreadful time.
I am reminded of a tutor (not in law) in my Oxford days who interrupted anyone who used the word “relatively” with the words “Relatively to what Mr X?” – and unlike jesting Pilate, he would stay for an answer!