Ever since Re B-S, there has been a potential issue for the Courts to resolve – given that Re B-S talks about the test in leave to oppose being not about whether a parent might get the child back necessarily but about whether the Court might make an order OTHER THAN Adoption, with the test for making an adoption order still being ‘nothing else will do’ – what happens if a parent invites the Court to leave the child in the placement, but make a Special Guardianship Order rather than an adoption order?
Why does it matter? Well, if you are a prospective adopter about to commit to taking on a child, you might need to know that you might not get to adopt the child after all, if you are someone who already has a child placed with them that you were intending to adopt, it might be that you will end up with an SGO instead, and if you are a birth parent who wants to stop the adoption happening you would want to know whether the Courts are going to entertain (even in cases where you can’t persuade them to return your child) making a less drastic order than adoption. Also important for Judges dealing with those cases, social workers planning for the future for children, lawyers advising clients and politicians making policy about adoption. As even the President of the Family Division has recently acknowledged, there’s a tension between the direction of travel of Government (social workers should stop thinking of adoption as a last resort) and the Courts (adoption is still a last resort, even way after the Court have already decided it is in the child’s best interests to approve a plan of adoption)
So this is the first case that rolls up its sleeves and gets under the bonnet of the issue, the High Court have just dealt with exactly such a scenario. I wrote about the hearing that decided that the father should be given LEAVE to oppose the adoption order here
And this is now the judgment from the contested adoption case itself.
Re N (A child) Adoption Order 2014
The Judge in this case concluded that an adoption order was preferable for this child than SGO, weighing the pros and cons of each type of order, and bearing in mind that adoption could not be sanctioned unless “nothing else will do”
46. I accept that adoption does have the disadvantage of severing the legal tie between N and her paternal family. In every other respect it is the preferable order to make in this exceptional case. Some of these reasons for adoption are so important that they lead me inexorably to the conclusion that it is the only order that can be made. In any event, the combination of all these factors is overwhelming such that it is abundantly clear that nothing else will do. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of the order, adoption is necessary and proportionate given the huge advantages that it provides to N for the rest of her life.
47. I have formed the view that an adoption order is overwhelmingly necessary. N has only ever known one home. She has significant special needs. She is a vulnerable child. She will become a vulnerable adult. She has received a very high quality of care from the Applicants. She has thrived with them. She now needs the security, trust and confidence of being made a permanent legal member of their family such that the Applicants will be fully and solely responsible for her needs throughout her life.
He sets out clearly that the Court WOULD have jurisdiction to make an SGO rather than adoption order (and to do so even where the prospective adopters didn’t WANT an SGO)
32. the key question which the court will be obliged to ask itself in every case in which the question of adoption as opposed to special guardianship arises will be which order will better serve the welfare of this particular child. It seems clear to me, however, that this must be subject to the law as set out in Re B that an adoption order is to be made only where nothing else will do. In this regard, it is a material feature of the special guardianship regime that it involves a less fundamental interference with existing legal relationships. I further accept that I have power to impose a special guardianship order on an unwilling party to the proceedings if I am satisfied that, applying the welfare checklist in the 1989 Act, a special guardianship order will best serve the welfare interests of the child concerned
I think the most important part of this judgment will be this line from para 48
I have already indicated that this is an exceptional case. If it were not an exceptional case, I doubt whether an adoption order would have been appropriate
(If you listen carefully when you read that sentence you can hear the sound of future litigation – and a lot of it)
The Judge goes on to set out what those exceptional circumstances are, and one can readily see that most of them would not arise in a traditional SGO v adoption case
(a) N’s serious disabilities require a lifelong order rather than a special guardianship order that expires on her 18th birthday. I am satisfied that, regardless of the excellent progress that she has made, she will still be dependent on the Applicants, probably indefinitely and certainly well into her adult life. Many of her disabilities (such as her autism and development delay) have not altered and will not alter notwithstanding her progress in other areas. I am not going to consider in detail the jurisdiction of the Court of Protection after her 18th birthday. The simple fact of the matter is that she needs to have as her legal parents at that point the people who will by then have cared for her exclusively for over 17 years of her life. This is what makes this case so exceptional. Special guardianship simply does not fit the bill in this regard at all. Adoption does. It is necessary and required.
(b) The only home that she has ever known has been with the Applicants. She is embedded emotionally into their family but she needs to be embedded legally there as well. This is as important for her as it is for the Applicants and their son. I accept that she does not and probably never will understand the legal concept of adoption but she does understand the concept of being a full member of a family. It is overwhelmingly in her interests that she is a full member of this family as a matter of law. In short, she must have permanence and total security there. Adoption is the only order that will give her that permanence and security.
(c) Whilst I look at this entirely from the perspective of N, the position of the Applicants is a very relevant consideration. They have invested an enormous commitment into N. They need to know that her presence with them is complete and not susceptible to challenge. If that were not the case, I consider there is a real possibility that it might have an adverse impact on the welfare of N. This would not be because the Applicants would not remain fully committed to her but the uncertainty and potential concerns as to what might be around the corner and what problems they may encounter when she attains her majority have a real potential to cause difficulties for N herself.
(d) I am very concerned about the litigation that has taken place in this case. Litigation is a real concern for carers at the best of times. This litigation has been going on for over five years at an intense level. I have not heard oral evidence from the Father and Paternal Grandmother but I do have a real concern that a special guardianship order would not be the end of the battle. The Father’s statement talks about unsupervised contact, staying contact and even contact in Nigeria. In one sense it is understandable why he makes such comments. I am, however, concerned that he has not fully come to terms with being ruled out as a carer. Mr Macdonald’s submissions reinforce that concern in so far as they repeatedly refer to there being no threshold findings having been made against him. The risk of ongoing continuing litigation with no understanding of the effect of that on N’s carers is something that this court must consider in deciding on the appropriate order.
(e) N has never lived with her Father or her Paternal Grandmother. There is no family member available to care for her. The Father and Paternal Grandmother have been ruled out and their appeal in that regard was dismissed. N has only ever had supervised contact to them. This is not to downplay their importance. It is merely a fact. It is accepted by the Applicants that the Father and the Paternal Grandmother are a vital part of N’s heritage. They are committed to contact. I accept the evidence that this is a genuine commitment that will not be reconsidered once they have adopted N. They have shown their attitude clearly by setting up contact with N’s mother’s other children. It follows that adoption in this particular case will not stop contact from continuing with the parental birth family. This is important.
Breaking them down, the 5 exceptional factors here were
1. The child has serious physical disabilities that will require lifelong care, not just until her 18th birthday
2. The only home she has ever really known is with the prospective adopters
3. The enormous effort and commitment that the prospective adopters have put into the care of this child
4. That this child has been the subject of intense litigation for 5 years and making an SGO would probably see that continue in the future
5. That the father has never cared for the child and that the evidence is plain that he would never be able to
But even in this case, the Court was plain that ongoing contact (four times per year) would be necessary, though the Court declined to make a contact order on the basis that the adopters were in agreement with that plan for contact.
It seems, therefore, that in a contested adoption hearing where the parents have as either their primary position or a fallback position – there should be an SGO rather than an adoption order, there is a live issue to be tried. (and if that’s the case, if a parent actually puts forward that argument rather than straight ‘give me the child back’, their application for leave to oppose must surely have some solidity and the prospect of being granted?)
Most parents, of course, will want to oppose the adoption order on the basis of the child coming back to their care – obviously that’s what they want. But those who take up the fallback position of “Even if not, an SGO is better than adoption, because adoption is the last resort” have a case that would be tricky to throw out at leave stage.