The Court of Appeal in Re P (a child) 2014 considered an appeal from a Judge who refused a step-parent adoption having applied the law (or at least the gloss on the law applied in the last year)
Boiling it down to one question – does ‘nothing else will do’ apply to step-parent adoptions where the biological parent who is being ousted as the legal parent doesn’t consent? Well, of course it does, one would immediately say. The whole thrust of Re B was about ‘non-consensual adoption’, that’s a non-consensual adoption. And the whole hook of Re B was using the word ‘requires’ in the s52(1) (b) test to carry with it a huge additional weight of proportionality and nothing else will do – running counter to the former President’s decision in a previous Re P that ‘require was a perfectly ordinary English word’ to import a meaning that was much much more. (To be fair, that’s an additional amount of meaning taken directly from the ECHR decision of Y v UK, which in effect was ‘the ECHR lets the UK persist in its weird ideas about adoption, but we only tolerate it if you take it bloody seriously’)
The legal test for dispensing with the father’s consent to make a step-parent adoption (and these cases are almost always about fathers being cut out of children’s lives and legal relationship of fathers being severed – you just don’t get many stepmother adoptions) is s52(1) (b), – the child’s welfare requires consent to be dispensed with.
So, of course, it must be ‘nothing else will do’.
And if it is “nothing else will do” then it is going to be spectacularly hard to demonstrate that for any proposed step-parent adoption (not just that it would be better for the child to make the order but that there is literally no other solution – ie the status quo can’t remain for reasons which are hard to fathom, looking from the outside)
So, nothing else will do almost certainly kills off step-parent adoptions.
No, the Court of Appeal say otherwise. (I will make it plain that I think this decision is wrong, but it’s the law, and we are stuck with it. I think it flies in the face of common sense, ignores the principle of least interventionist order and is particularly prejudicial to birth fathers)
Here is the Court of Appeal test for step-parent adoptions (drawn from a 1999 ECHR case, Soderback v Sweden, which distinguished between State adoption and adoption within part of the biological family)
a) There is a distinction to be drawn between adoption in the context of compulsory, permanent placement outside the family against the wishes of parents (for example as in Johansen v Norway) and a step-parent adoption where, by definition, the child is remaining in the care of one or other of his parents;
b) Factors which are likely to reduce the degree of interference with the Art 8 rights of the child and the non-consenting parent [‘Parent B’], and thereby make it more likely that adoption is a proportionate measure are:
i) Where Parent B has not had the care of the child or otherwise asserted his or her responsibility for the child;
ii) Where Parent B has had only infrequent or no contact with the child;
iii) Where there is a particularly well established family unit in the home of the parent and step-parent in which ‘de facto’ family ties have existed for a significant period.
Those all seem to me very good reasons for a step-father having PR, but why are they good reasons for making an adoption order and changing a step-father into a legal father, and changing the biological father into a person with no connection to the child whatsoever?
The Court of Appeal do say that where the biological father is involved and opposes, the position is that the adoption should be a rare event and that the case ought to be resolved by making private law orders instead (there’s the ability to grant a step-father PR, or Child Arrangement Order (residence), even a Special Guardianship Order – although that would be insane, because it would give the step-father the legal power to override the birth mother. That’s so crackers that… it will probably happen within the next year)
In so far as the earlier domestic cases to which I have made reference establish that, in the event of Parent B being actively opposed to a step-parent adoption, practical arrangements should be dealt with by private law orders, that approach is entirely at one with the modern private law relating to children which seeks to determine aspects of the delivery of child-care and the discharge of parental responsibility either by parental agreement or by a child arrangements order under CA 1989, s 8.
The making of an adoption order is primarily, if not entirely, concerned with the legal status of the relationships between the child, his natural parent(s) and the adopter(s), rather than practical arrangements. Thorpe LJ’s words in Re PJ adhering to the aptness of earlier cautionary dicta, and reminding professionals of the need to be aware of the motives, emotions and possible unrealistic assumptions about any new family unit, remain as wise and sound as they were when uttered in 1998. In this manner, the approach of the domestic case law sits easily alongside that of the ECtHR in Söderbäck v Sweden
The earlier authorities on contested step parent adoptions thus still apply, despite their antiquity so here they are
In Re D (Adoption: Parent’s Consent)  AC 602 the House of Lords gave consideration to a step-parent adoption application made by a mother and her new husband, which was opposed by the child’s father. Lord Wilberforce, at page 627, laid stress on three matters:
i) that under the statutory test for dispensing with parental consent, as it then was, the child’s welfare was only one consideration; the test being ‘reasonableness’ (Adoption Act 1958, s 7);
ii) consent should only be dispensed with in rare and exceptional cases, and this was ‘all the more so in cases … where the adoption is desired by one natural parent and the other refuses consent’;
iii) an adoption order, which is irrevocable, should not be used to deal with practical considerations concerning custody, care and control or access.
Dicta of the Court of Appeal (for example that of Bagnall J in Re B (Adoption by Parent)  Fam 127 at page 146) endorsed the third of these points and indicated that, in the event of the other natural parent opposing a step-parent adoption, the court would strive to achieve an outcome by ordinary private law orders rather than adoption.
This is going to make the issue of service of the birth father a very critical issue. If the birth father has been served and doesn’t turn up, the Court will probably make the step parent adoption order if it can be shown that the current family unit is settled and happy and that the birth father’s role has been limited. If he does turn up, the Court will probably NOT make the order. Thus, making sure that the birth parent has been served is vital, and of course the likelihood is that these applications will be made after mum and birth father have been estranged for some years and without the benefit of public funding.