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Go to Court on an egg

 

 

[with apologies to Tony Hancock and Fay Weldon for twisting their slogan]
Even by HFEA case standards, this one takes some following. Although as we know from the High Court we are all expected to be experts in the HFEA now.

It is Re G (Children) 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/336.html

Helpfully, even from the outset, we learn that although the case is called Re G, the children are referred to as “D” and “the twins” – nobody ever gets called “G” at any point.

We have a single-sex couple, A and R. They wanted to have some children. A donated her eggs, which were fertilised by an anonymous donor, and implanted into R, who gave birth in the usual way. Those children were the twins.

There were some fertilised embryos left over from the process, and A later used one of those to have her own pregnancy – that produced child D. [Quite a few years later]

Now, biologically, D and the twins have the same biological mother A, the same (anonymous) biological father and are full siblings.

However, legally, the mother of D is A. The legal mother of the twins is R.

Even though A and R were raising the children together, until they separated, the children (who were full biological siblings) had different legal mothers – A was the legal mother of D and had no legal status in relation to the twins, and R was the legal mother of the twins and had no legal status in relation to D. And although the twins and D were biological siblings, in law they were only half-siblings.

[This is reminding me of the beginning of SOAP, where the voiceover says “Confused? You will be” ]

All of this probably worked out okay, until A and R separated (they don’t even agree when they separated – R says they separated in 2008 but lived together as friends until 2012, A says they were in a relationship until 2012 and then separated)

It is to their credit, as the Court of Appeal observed, that when they came before Her Honour Judge Black, they had managed to resolve where the children would live, contact arrangements and were left with one single issue.

Should there be a joint residence order in relation to the twins, this being the only way that A, their biological mother, would have parental responsibility in relation to them.

Her Honour Judge Black considered that carefully, and it is fair to say that the case law provided very little in the way of guidance to resolve a difficult issue. She eventually refused the order, hence A appealing to the Court of Appeal.

[I have to say, I would have pragmatically have made the order, but made it plain that the twins primary home was with R, and it was an order made to achieve the legal status that A warranted as their biological mother]

18. She began her judgment by explaining that she thought it appropriate that the order made by the court should recognise that only one of the parties was the twins’ mother and therefore she should have sole parental responsibility for them. In contrast, she remarked that the appellant is not a parent of the children and that her status should not be elevated in that way (§4). She considered that the contact arrangement, coupled with the agreement to provide information about education and medical issues and for a limited delegation of parental responsibility was sufficient to recognise the importance of the appellant’s involvement in the children’s lives (§9).
19. The judge thought it of significance that in relation to D, the parties had not taken advantage of the provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 which would have enabled them both to be parents of D. From this, she inferred that there had not been an intention to bring D up as joint parents and, I think, drew the further inference that the same was true of their intentions in relation to the twins. This led to her saying that “there is no question at any point of [the respondent] sharing parental responsibility of [the appellant’s] child with her and, therefore, it would seem on that basis alone, to be wrong that she should expect to share responsibility for [the respondent’s] children” (§8).
20. A theme of the argument on behalf of the appellant was that without a shared residence order, she would be marginalised by the respondent. The judge said that she did not see from reading the parties’ statements that there had been inappropriate marginalisation of the appellant and she considered that the respondent had shown that she recognised the importance that the appellant has in relation to the children by her agreement in relation to contact and the provision of information.
21. In contrast, the judge said that she was concerned about how the appellant “may operate her parental responsibility if she were given it” (§5) and in fixing on a sole residence order as appropriate, she referred to “the risks which may be involved in [the appellant] sharing parental responsibility” (§9).The source of her concern appears to have been particularly the threat to take matters to the press, although I think I interpret her correctly (§5 of the judgment) as saying that it had not been suggested in submissions that this continued to be a problem. It seems she may also have been taking into account what she described as “a sad history to how things have developed over certainly the course of this year and last year”.

 

The Court of Appeal were aided in their decision-making by some recent authorities, and some lovely cut-and-thrust from the two counsel representing A and R (A is the applicant, R the Respondent)

23. Ms Campbell, who appeared on behalf of the appellant, argued that the judge had failed to give weight to some important features of the case, including that the appellant was the biological mother of the twins, that she had cared for them for four and a half years, and that she would be taking a parenting role in respect of them for the rest of their lives.
24. Ms Foulkes for the respondent argued that these matters were known to the judge but she was entitled to give weight to the fact that the respondent is, as she put it, drawing on the speech of Baroness Hale in In re G (Children)(Residence: Same-sex Partner) [2006] UKHL 43 [2006] 1 WLR 2305, “their gestational parent, their legal parent and their social and psychological parent”.
25. Ms Campbell argued that the judge had set too much store by the fact that, by virtue of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, the respondent was “the mother” and therefore overlooked the fact that the appellant was a “parent”. She submitted that the twins have regarded the appellant as their parent all their lives and, during the extensive contact that there will be in future, she would continue to take that role. She submitted that they would naturally expect her to be as involved in matters such as schooling as the respondent and, without parental responsibility, she would not be able to be.
26. Ms Foulkes responded that the law deliberately distinguishes between the genetic mother and the gestational mother. It is of note, she said, that it is the gestational mother who has automatic parental responsibility. The mere fact of genetic parentage is not sufficient, she said, to justify a shared residence order, and even if the judge did find that the appellant had played a parental role, that did not require her to make a shared residence order, see Re R (Parental Responsibility) [2011] EWHC 1535 (Fam) [2011] 2 FLR 1132 where Jackson J did not grant a free-standing parental responsibility order to a step-father who had been and continued to be a psychological parent to the child.
27. Ms Campbell complained that the judge had not identified the risks that she felt may be involved in sharing parental responsibility, submitting that there are no grounds to believe that the appellant would interfere with the respondent’s exercise of her parental responsibility. Ms Foulkes said that the judge’s reference to the threat of the press was enough and the judge could have cited many examples from the appellant’s statement of her referring to her own biological role, failing to recognise the importance of the respondent in the children’s lives, and criticising the respondent’s care of them.
28. Ms Campbell submitted that the judge was wrong to have been influenced by the fact that the respondent was to have no parental role in relation to D; that was irrelevant when considering what was in the interests of the twins. Ms Foulkes’ answer was that this was a relevant factor because it undermined the appellant’s case that the intention had been that she and the respondent would be joint parents of the twins and were intending, with the birth of D, to add to their family. On the contrary, it was said, the evidence showed that the intention had always been for the respondent to be the sole legal parent for the twins and the appellant the sole legal parent for D. It was also relevant, Ms Foulkes said, that the three children would be in different legal situations if a shared residence order was made and the twins would struggle to make sense of why they had two parents with parental responsibility and D did not.

(even though I would have made the shared residence order, I think Ms Foulkes points at para 26 which go in the opposite direction are compelling. It is harder to resolve this than you might think)
28. Discussion
29. It was common ground between the parties that a shared residence order could be made in order to confer parental responsibility. The question is whether the judge was wrong to take the view that it was not in the twins’ best interests to make such an order here.
30. Families are formed in different ways these days and the law must attempt to keep up and to respond to developments. To some extent, the judge was right to say that no decided authorities assisted her greatly. Certainly there is nothing which is precisely in point. It might, however, have been helpful if the parties had invited her to consider the legal framework, including some of the authorities dealing with the nature of parental responsibility and showing how the concept had been approached in new situations which were not centre stage when it first made its appearance. Because, for reasons I will give in due course, I would dispose of this appeal by overturning Judge Black’s order and remitting the matter for rehearing, I thought it might be of assistance to gather together some of the learning that is available even though, in order to do so, I have departed from the parties’ submissions and relied on my own research.
[The research here is excellently set out – it would make this piece rather too long to rehearse it all, but check it out in the judgment if you are interested]

I return to consider the issues arising in this appeal. It seems to me that the judge was put in a difficult position, albeit that this happened for the best of reasons. As the authorities show, a decision such as that which she was asked to take is heavily dependent on the particular facts of the case. Many of the facts here were hotly disputed and there was neither an agreed factual framework nor any factual findings made by a court. No judge wishes to put parties through more litigation, particularly not where, as here, they have at last managed to reach a sensible agreement on much that was in issue between them. Sometimes a judge has no choice but to do the best he or she can to ascertain the facts on the basis of the written material and submissions only; proceedings under the 1980 Hague Convention quite frequently have to proceed in this way. Sometimes the appropriate factual findings are sufficiently obvious for oral evidence not to be required. However, sometimes it is not at all clear on the papers where the balance of probability lies in relation to disputed facts which are central to the judge’s thinking. In those cases, notwithstanding an invitation from the parties to act on submissions only, it may not be realistically possible for a judge to make a determination without hearing some evidence. It seems to me that this case was such a case.
It may not be very surprising that the grounds of appeal did not include a complaint that the judge had made findings without hearing any evidence, as the parties had asked her to rule on the issue on submissions only. Looking back at the process however, I think that it resulted in the judge’s decision being built on foundations which were rather wobbly. This was compounded by her not having articulated, beyond the threat of the press which the appellant had abandoned, what led her to believe that the appellant would interfere with the care of the children if she had parental responsibility, why she thought that would continue to be a risk notwithstanding the appellant’s abandonment of her residence application, and the form she thought the interference would take.
The Court of Appeal felt that Her Honour Judge Black, though clearly faced with a very difficult decision, had given too little emphasis to the biological relationship between A and the twins, and that the decision had to be set aside. The Court of Appeal did not, however, think that they could simply substitute a joint residence order because the disputed facts went to the heart of that decision. Therefore, they decided that the case needed to be reheard, with either an agreed factual matrix or a Judge making findings on the essential disputed matters.

59. I would end with some words to the parties. I urge them to reach agreement about the issues that remain between them. One can well see that, subject to issues about interference and undermining, a judge might be inclined to recognise the distinctive features of this case by making a shared residence order to confer parental responsibility on the appellant, given her past and continuing involvement in the twins’ lives, her role as their genetic parent, and the fact that she is the mother of their sibling. Whether that turns out to be appropriate will depend very much upon what transpires in the new hearing and I express no concluded view about it. What I am, however, quite confident about is that a further hearing should be avoided if at all possible. I repeat what I said in T v T [2010] EWCA Civ 1366 at §49:
“Childhood is over all too quickly and, whilst I appreciate that both sides think that they are motivated only by concern for the children, it is still very sad to see it being allowed to slip away whilst energy is devoted to adult wrangles and to litigation. What is particularly unfair is that the legacy of a childhood tainted in this way is likely to remain with the children into their own adult lives.”
I think the parties realised this when they reached the agreement that they did in front of Judge Black. I am sorry that the arrangements fixed that day cannot stand in their totality. But further agreement is still an option.

 

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

2 responses

  1. If the two came to an agreement on how to raise the children, why not sign a binding contract to that effect?

  2. Pingback: Go to Court on an egg | Children In Law | Scoo...

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