An age-old philosophical question, and one that every generation finds for itself – I myself remember playground arguments when I was about seven – “If God made everything, then who made God? And who made the person who made God?” [But then I also remember being taken to the Deputy Head’s Office for a fist-fight about whether the Beatles were better than Elvis]
I shall pass that question over to Brian Cox, who can answer it more ably than I can and also with a boyish charm that I would lack. (I think my favourite scientific answer is from Alan Guth “The universe is simply one of those things that happen from time to time”
But for our legal purposes, the ‘something instead of nothing’ debate is focussing on adoption, and the soundbite formulation that it appears that the Court of Appeal may be deeply regretting that a Court can’t make a Placement Order unless satisfied that “nothing else will do”
Understandably, if you tell a group of lawyers that the test is “nothing else will do”, half of them will find something and argue that if there is something then there can’t also be nothing. Something else and nothing else are mutually exclusive, surely.
The Court of Appeal are in a process of refinement (or retreat, if you want to be mean)
Last week, we had Re M H https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/10/29/nothing-else-will-do-court-of-appeal-clarification/
This one is Re M (A child : Long-Term Foster Care) 2014
We don’t need to go into the whys and wherefores of why the child couldn’t be with mum, but save to say that it was quite plain that (a) she had problems that she couldn’t fix on her own (b) The therapy that she would need to fix the problems would take at least two years and (c) it wasn’t clear whether she would be fixed at the end.
The LA were saying – the timescales for change and prognosis for change mean that the child can’t wait for the mother to make those changes, and thus nothing else than adoption will do.
The mother’s case seems to have been that the Court should embark on a course of therapy, see how the first 6 months had gone and THEN make the decision.
The Court instead arrived at a “something” which involved the child being in foster care, subject to a Care Order until such time as mother was ruled as being capable of meeting the child’s needs.
[That sentence probably has a mixed response. If you are English or Welsh AND a lawyer or social worker, you’ll think it is nuts. If you are a parent, you’ll think it sounds fair. If you are a Scottish lawyer or social worker, you might think it sounds reasonable, because that’s an approach that is foreign to England and Wales but something that occasionally happens in Scotland.]
This was a case in which the Recorder had given three judgments, at various stages (the final judgment, an addendum giving clarification and then a judgment on the LA’s application for permission to appeal).
As the Court of Appeal illustrate, the reasoning is not perhaps ideal when you lay the three judgments alongside each other. My first draft used the word ‘inconsistent’ but the Court of Appeal say that to call it inconsistent is inappropriate, so I changed my words.
21. The Recorder’s three judgments do not sit easily together and nor does his thinking emerge clearly from them. There are, on the face of it, inconsistencies in what he says. I am not entirely sure whether this is because he was inconsistent in his thinking or because, in so far as his true reasoning emerged, it only did so gradually over the course of the three judgments.
22. I can illustrate what I mean by contrasting the end of the permission judgment with the earlier judgments. Concluding the permission judgment, the Recorder expressed himself in a way which suggested that he saw foster care as catering for the next two years or so, until the possibility of L returning to live with M had been fully explored. In the earlier judgments, in contrast, there was, at times, a sense that he contemplated that L would remain in foster care for the rest of her childhood, probably reflecting a different strand of his thinking which was about the importance of continuing the relationship between L and her parents through contact. The end of the permission judgment reads:
“This is a case where it will become apparent in 2 years or perhaps less whether M will be able to care for her daughter, when it is established if she will respond to therapy/treatment. If therapy and treatment is successful, M will be able to apply to discharge the care order. If, as foreseen by Dr Penny, there is a possibility, if not a strong possibility, that therapy fails (sic)…. LA can then make a fresh application for a placement order.”
23. The first judgment, in contrast, included passages such as those which I have set out below, which I think show that the Recorder was considering long-term foster care with contact as an option in its own right which would potentially endure throughout L’s childhood, albeit that there are some allusions suggesting that he may also have had in mind the possibility of a return to M’s care following therapy (see for example, §64 and the end of §74). The first two passages show the importance that the Recorder attached to continuing contact and the final one appears to be contemplating indefinite long-term foster care in order to maintain that contact:
“I find that the particular needs of L for the present are for her to be cared for in a ‘secure, warm and loving family that is able to meet all her needs’ and, crucially, for continuing the existing and loving relationships with her birth parents by way of direct contact.” (§72, my emphasis)
“I am also concerned that L will interpret being cut off from M as being a ‘punishment’ for having behaved wrongly…. “(§73)
“I do not think that this analysis [the guardian’s analysis of the shortcomings of long term foster care] places sufficient weight on the importance of maintaining direct contact with her parents. It is an evaluation which does not explain why long term foster care ‘will not do’, to paraphrase, slightly, the words of Baroness Hale in a number of cases. I accept that foster placements may not be as stable or secure as adoption orders, but some succeed, just as some adoptions fail. There is no reason for the local authority to be unnecessarily intrusive in a long term fostering placement. She should be able to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, save that she would be seeing her birth parents during contact, rather than living with one or other of them.” (§78)
24. In the second judgment, which the Recorder expressly did not intend to affect his conclusions in his first judgment (§81), there are passages which seem to merge the idea of long-term foster care as a freestanding option and foster care as a way of preserving the possibility of a return to M. This can be seen, for example, in §88 where the Recorder commented that the social worker had not considered what L’s wishes would have been if she had been offered the option of “long term foster care with direct contact continuing and her mother receiving treatment and the possibility of return to her mother’s care if the treatment was successful”. It can also be seen in §93 where the judge comments on the Statement of Facts as follows:
“Again, there is no analysis of the option of long term foster care, with its benefits of continuing the strong bond between M and L and the possibility of return to her care if she successfully undergoes the therapy and other interventions.”
25. The passages that I have quoted so far leave the reader unclear as to the design that the Recorder had for long-term foster care, whether it was to be a vehicle for preserving contact or the means of providing an opportunity for a return to M if her therapy succeeded or both, but it would probably be inappropriate to describe them as inconsistent. However, I agree with LA that the Recorder’s rejection of temporary foster care as inappropriate for L at §76 is difficult to reconcile with the order that he made which, on one view, provided for just that, certainly if events were going to develop as the Recorder contemplated at the end of the permission judgment.
The option of long-term foster placement being the right option for the child was possible (and it might be possible to have made a case for the plan that the Recorder ended up with), but as the Court of Appeal say, that’s going to require a very clear and reasoned judgment
27. In the course of argument, Mr MacDonald submitted persuasively that the difficulties in the course taken by the Recorder were demonstrated in practical terms by the problem for LA in deciding what type of foster care should be chosen for L if his order were to be upheld. He had created, it was submitted, an undesirable half-way house between true long-term foster and short-term foster care which was the worst of all worlds for L. There is force in that submission. The Recorder’s plan for L had built into it uncertainty and insecurity. It also incorporated delay for a period potentially extending to 2 years. Delay, on the evidence before the Recorder (which was in familiar terms), was likely to harm L’s chances of a successful adoption placement if, ultimately, that was the proper outcome for her. Indeed, he himself accepted that a decision about whether adoption was appropriate needed to be made as soon as possible because a successful adoptive placement was more likely now than later (§72).
28. To justify a decision such as this would require the clearest of reasoning, particularly in the face of the very guarded prognosis for M’s therapy. I am afraid that this is absent from the Recorder’s judgments. I cannot reliably tell whether he proceeded as he did in order to leave open the possibility of L going home to one of her parents if therapy were to prove successful or because he considered that her relationship with them was such as to require preservation through contact, notwithstanding the disadvantages for L of the long-term foster care which would be the inevitable corollary of that. Furthermore, I am not confident that he gave weight to the guarded prognosis for successful therapy, or took into account the advantages for a child of her age of adoption and the disadvantages of long-term foster care, or bore in mind the advice that he had accepted at §72 (see below) as to the need to deal with the adoption question sooner rather than later. He seems to have been inclined to minimise the disadvantages of foster care, on the basis that long-term foster care would be better than short-term foster care and that LA would not be “unnecessarily intrusive in a long-term fostering placement” and L could have “a relatively normal childhood” in that context (§78). In this regard, he was, in my view, overly optimistic, not least because, with the best will in the world, LA would not be able to avoid involvement in L’s life because of their statutory duties to protect her as a looked after child.
But there clearly was “something” here, and “something” that the Recorder had not been satisfied should be ruled out. So, in the presence of “something” there’s an absence of the “nothing else” for the nothing else will do test, surely?
Well, no. The Court of Appeal explain that the shorthand test incorporates within it the more important concept that one is looking at [emphasis in italics is the Court of Appeal, underlining mine]
30. The “recent authorities referred to above” are Re B (a child)  UKSC 33 and Re G (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation)  EWCA Civ 965. What is said in these authorities about the need to consider all the options and to sanction adoption only if nothing else will do must be interpreted with a careful eye to the realities of a child’s life. Delay is one of factors that always has to be taken into account in determining any question with regard to a child’s welfare, see section 1(3) Adoption and Children Act 2002 (ACA 2002) and section 1(2) Children Act 1989 (CA 1989). But whether an individual child’s welfare requires adoption depends on many other factors besides delay. A vital starting point for what those factors might be in a given case is the list in section 1(4) ACA 2002 (and its equivalent for Children Act proceedings in section 1(3) CA 1989) but these are not of course exhaustive lists. It is to be noted that the child’s age features in both of them.
31. The fact that speedy action will improve the prospects of a successful adoption for a particular child of a particular age must take its place in the overall appraisal of the case. Sometimes when considered with all the other factors, it will dictate that the court approves a plan for adoption of the child, even when full weight is given to the important reminders in recent cases, starting of course with Re B, that steps are only to be taken down the path towards adoption if it is necessary.
32. What is necessary is a complex question requiring an evaluation of all of the circumstances. As Lord Neuberger said at §77 of Re B, speaking of a care order which in that case would be very likely to result in the child being adopted:
“It seems to me inherent in section 1(1) [Children Act 1989] that a care order should be a last resort, because the interests of the child would self-evidently require her relationship with her natural parents to be maintained unless no other course was possible in her interests.” (my emphasis)
I emphasise the last phrase of that passage (“in her interests”) because it is an important reminder that what has to be determined is not simply whether any other course is possible but whether there is another course which is possible and in the child’s interests. This will inevitably be a much more sophisticated question and entirely dependent on the facts of the particular case. Certain options will be readily discarded as not realistically possible, others may be just about possible but not in the child’s interests, for instance because the chances of them working out are far too remote, others may in fact be possible but it may be contrary to the interests of the child to pursue them.
The Court of Appeal had been asked to make a Placement Order, but decided that the case needed to be resubmitted for re-hearing.
We are continuing to refine / retreat from “nothing else will do” and our soundbite test is really ending up to be quite a nuanced and long test, rather more like
The Court must look at each of the options for the child, consider which are remote and which are possible, and of the possible options consider whether they are contrary to the interests of the child to pursue them. If there is an option that remains that is a less interventionist order than adoption, that should be preferred.
That isn’t snappy, it isn’t catchy, it isn’t memorable – but if we learned anything from the “imminent risk of really serious harm” debacle (maybe we didn’t) it is perhaps that Courts should stick to nuance and long formulations and the statute and leave catchy slogans to Don Draper
[It is therefore not Adoption > long-term fostering for the child therefore adoption, but long-term fostering being an option for the child that although possible is not in their interests]