In Re W (Children) 2015, the Court of Appeal had to deal with an appeal arising from a refusal to grant a parent leave to oppose the making of an adoption order. [I know that like Rizzle Kicks you are saying “Let’s snip to the good bit” – have patience, it is about a third of the way down the page]
As the case was being dealt with by the President (amongst others), we were always going to begin with an admonishment about Practice Directions.
I interpose to observe that this is yet another example of practice which is not merely unacceptable for reasons which ought to be obvious – the court needs to know both the author(s) and the date of such a document – but is in fact in plain breach of PD27A, para 4.2. This is not the first time I have had occasion to complain about this in recent months: see Re L (A Child)  EWFC 15. I said this (para 14):
“PD27A para 4.2 states that:
“All statements, affidavits, care plans, experts’ reports and other reports included in the bundle must be copies of originals which have been signed and dated.”
This requirement, there for good reason, is too frequently ignored. For a recent, and egregious, example, see Re A (A Child)  EWFC 11.”
I continued (para 23):
“This endemic failure of the professions to comply with PD27A must end, and it must end now. Fifteen years of default are enough … The professions need to recognise that enough is enough. It is no use the court continuing feebly to issue empty threats. From now on delinquents can expect to find themselves subject to effective sanctions”.
I spelt out what those sanctions might involve. Here we merely identify the delinquent local authority as Coventry City Council.
It can only be a matter of time before the President issues an edict that prescibes a rap over the knuckles with a ruler for breaches of PD27. Or perhaps a dunces cap, constructed of foolscap paper, to be worn by those responsible for the breaches for the duration of the proceedings.
I can see that it must be irksome for a Judge not to have the signed and dated documents in front of them, this seems a far more legitimate complaint than whether the documents are on double-sided paper. But nonetheless I am adding it to my file of “The Welfare of the Bundle is Paramount” cases.
There were a lot of gripes about the original way that the trial judge managed the application, but it finally turned on this particular point:-
- In the first of those two paragraphs, Judge Watson said this:
“So far as M is concerned there has been a very specific matter which has been raised and has been raised consistently throughout the proceedings and that is that for some reason he was not circumcised. I do not know the reasons for that. It could well be to do with the time and the age he was when he was taken into foster care, but for whatever reason he was not circumcised. The social worker has indicated in her statement that on 3 September there was an agreement that M should be circumcised and I am satisfied that it would be in his cultural and religious best interests to be circumcised. It is what his parents wish and it is a wish which ought to be recognised and perhaps should have been recognised before to date [sic].”
- The final paragraph of her judgment underwent some revision. In the draft transcript sent to her for approval, Judge Watson was recorded as having said this:
“I am therefore going to say that I will not make a final adoption order until I am satisfied, in M’s case, that the circumcision has taken place. I will make the adoption order in relation to B. In M’s case I will make the adoption order, but that will not take effect until he has been circumcised. I hope that makes it as clear as it possibly can.”
As approved by Judge Watson the final paragraph reads as follows:
“I am therefore going to say that I will refuse leave to oppose the adoption but I will not make a final adoption order until I am satisfied, in M’s case, that the circumcision has taken place. I will make the final adoption order in relation to B in 7 days time. In M’s case I will make the adoption order, but that will not take effect until he has been circumcised. I hope that makes it as clear as it possibly can.”
- I have already set out Judge Watson’s order in full. So far as relevant to this point, the key parts of the order are these:
“upon the court indicating that the Adoption Order for M will be made upon written confirmation to the court that he has undertaken a procedure for circumcision
3 The court has approved an Adoption Order in respect of M such order to be made upon notification of the procedure as set out above.
And that, of course, is the Court making an Adoption Order on a conditional basis, which is not allowed.
- The first relates to M’s circumcision. It is tolerably clear from the order, though the language of the judgment (whichever version one takes) is unclear and, to my mind ambiguous, that Judge Watson did not on 29 September 2014 make an immediately effective adoption order in relation to M. According to the language of the order it “will be made” and is “to be made” upon the happening of the specified event. In other words, perfection of an adoption order in relation to M was expressed to be subject to what as a matter of law is properly described as a condition precedent, namely that M be circumcised. Ms Bazley and Ms McGrath submit that the court cannot properly make an adoption order effective only on satisfaction of a condition precedent. As they ask rhetorically, what is to happen if the condition precedent cannot be satisfied? Does one treat the condition precedent as determinative, with the consequence that the child is not adopted – and if so, what is to happen? Or does one treat the decision for adoption as determinative and, in effect, ignore the condition precedent? They pose the questions not for the purpose of inviting answers but in order to demonstrate that such an order is not merely unworkable in practice but also wrong as a matter of principle. How, after all, does an adoption order subject to such a condition precedent meet the ‘adoption as a last resort’ principle spelt out in the authorities?
- In the event the issue has arisen in a very practical way because Ms McGrath told us on instructions that the local authority has been unable to identify any NHS hospital or private clinic willing to perform a circumcision on a child of M’s age, absent medical reasons for doing so – a position, we were told, that is unlike to change.
- I agree with Ms Bazley and Ms McGrath. Paragraph 3 of the order is irretrievably flawed. It is in a form which is wrong as a matter of substance. No adoption order can be made expressed to be subject to satisfaction of a condition precedent. Accordingly, in relation to paragraph 3 of the order the appeal must be allowed on this ground also.
Nicely argued. You can’t really say that adoption is the last resort (but only if the child no longer has a foreskin).
The underlined bit is odd – there are a great many male children who have such an operation without there being any medical reasons – we can see the parental desire for this procedure was religious / cultural – so wouldn’t that be your starting point for having the process undertaken?
I can’t find from the judgment how old M was – certainly under the cut-off point for adoption. If he was say five or six, I can see why a GP / hospital consultant might be nervous about the procedure without medical cause. But surely it was a solveable problem. It was perhaps fortunate that the appeal arose, as otherwise this child would have been in a Schroedinger’s Cat style limbo – he can’t be adopted without the circumcision, but the LA can’t get the circumcision done. And no simple vehicle for taking that back to Court to vary the order, and they could have run out of time to lodge the appeal. It could have been very problematic (which is a major reason why you can’t attach a condition to the making of an adoption order)
The other two legal quirks in the case were these.
Firstly, in the care proceedings, nine days before the final hearing on a younger sibling JE began, the parents produced a letter from an Aunt who wished to care for the children. That led the Judge to decide that the case could not be concluded, but that he could conclude that neither parent could care for JE
- On 1 September 2014, Judge Cleary gave judgment following what had been intended to be the final hearing in relation to Je. He explained why finality had not been achieved. For present purposes there are two matters to be noted.
- First, Judge Cleary recorded his inability to get to the bottom of what had happened in relation to the various assessments of Aunt A. In his judgment he referred in scathing terms to the fact that the case worker “had a woefully inadequate grasp of what was going on, a wholesale lack of relevant papers and no, or no clear knowledge of the passage of information to and from Belgium”. He commented, “It was, as the caseworker conceded, a fiasco.” He directed a further assessment of Aunt A by an independent social worker who I shall refer to as ISW.
- Secondly, Judge Cleary ruled out both parents as carers for Je:
“I have quite enough information in respect of the parents, and enough evidence to require me to conclude that neither [the father] nor [the mother] is in a position to care for Je, and I therefore conclude that a North Yorkshire declaration is appropriate.”
- The legal significance of this is that North Yorkshire was a 2008 High Court authority thought by some (me) to have been a pragmatic solution to a tough situation and being hard to justify given what the Court of Appeal said in Re G that it is no longer a linear ruling out process. North Yorkshire is exactly that – the Court ruling out the parents and then having a later hearing to consider an alternative carer/ adoption. I thought North Yorkshire was dead in the water after Re B, R B-S and particularly Re G.
The President gave it an unexpected kiss of life in Re R, but in that case the Court had not been asked to determine that issue and it had not arisen, so his remarks were at best obiter. Here however, they are ratio and are binding. It is official, North Yorkshire declarations are compatible with adoption. (I can’t see how, but I don’t make the rules, I just write about them)
That is a reference to the decision of my Lady, then Black J, in North Yorkshire County Council v B  1 FLR 1645. That case is still good law: see Re R (A Child)  EWCA Civ 1625. As I said (para 67):
“Re B-S requires focus on the realistic options and if, on the evidence, the parent(s) are not a realistic option, then the court can at an early hearing, if appropriate having heard oral evidence, come to that conclusion and rule them out.”
So in principle Judge Cleary was entitled to proceed as he did and there has been, so far as we are aware, no challenge by either parent to his decision.
Flowing from that, just days after the Court had ruled both parents out as carers for JE but embarked upon an assessment of the aunt, by happenstance, the leave to oppose adoption hearing took place, before a different Judge, Judge Watson.
At that time, the ISW had not reported on the aunt as a potential carer of JE (and she was also putting herself forward as a carer for B and M). Two days after the leave to oppose hearing, the ISW report DID arrive, ruling the aunt out as a carer.
At the time of the leave to oppose hearing then, Judge Watson knew that Judge Cleary had ruled out the parents as carers for JE, but had directed an assessment of the aunt, and the outcome of that assessment was not known.
There’s quite a law anorak debate about whether the findings and decisions of Judge Cleary were binding on Judge Watson, or whether they were a starting point that she was entitled to rely on, but could deviate from if there were reason to do so.
- Judge Watson was entitled to take as a starting point, as the factual baseline, the various findings set out by Judge Cleary in his judgments of 12 December 2012 and 31 January 2013 and the fact that on 1 September 2014 Judge Cleary had ruled out the parents as prospective carers for Je: see In re B (Minors) (Care Proceedings: Issue Estoppel)  Fam 117 and In re Z (Children) (Care Proceedings: Review of Findings)  EWFC 9,  1 WLR 95. The same approach applies (see Re Z, para 32) whether the matter is before the same judge or a different judge, whether in the same or different proceedings, and whether in relation to the same or different children. So Judge Watson was entitled to rely on Judge Cleary’s decision on 1 September 2014 even though it arose in the context of the proceedings in relation to Je being heard by a different judge whereas the proceedings before Judge Watson related to B and M.
- A judge can revisit earlier findings and depart from them if there is good reason to do so. The approach was indicated by Hale J, as she then was, in Re B, page 129:
“Above all, the court is bound to want to consider whether there is any reason to think that a rehearing of the issue will result in any different finding from that in the earlier trial. By this I mean something more than the mere fact that different judges might on occasions reach different conclusions upon the same evidence … The court will want to know … whether there is any new evidence or information casting doubt upon the accuracy of the original findings.”
In Re Z, I said that I agreed with that, though adding (para 33) that one does not rehear a previously determined issue:
“unless there is some real reason to believe that the earlier findings require revisiting. Mere speculation and hope are not enough. There must be solid grounds for challenge.”
- It is not clear to me that Judge Watson was ever invited to go behind Judge Cleary’s decision on 1 September 2014. In any event, I cannot see that there were any solid grounds for challenging his decision. Judge Watson, in my judgment, was entitled to feed that decision into her overall appraisal of whether – I am leaving Aunt A on one side – there had been any change in the circumstances of the parents.
- What Judge Watson said in her judgment on the point was this:
“sadly for [the mother], on 1 September of this year she was ruled out as a potential parent and carer for Je.
That of course is a matter of weeks before this decision that I have to take and it is very difficult for me in those circumstances to satisfy myself that she has made those solid and significant changes an her circumstances which would justify me granting her leave to oppose the adoption.
His Honour Judge Cleary also ruled [the father] out as a prospective carer for Je. Again I am in considerable difficulty in seeking to accept the submissions made by [him] that he has also made an improvement and a significant change in his circumstance such that would justify the grant of leave to oppose the making of an adoption application because that does not accord with the judgment of HHJ Cleary.
Three weeks [sic] Judge Cleary was unable to accept that there had been a reversal, what I described as a sea change, in [the father’s] approach to the findings and to his involvement in the findings made by Judge Cleary in relation to the parenting of all of the children, but particularly the older children. I was not the judge who heard the fact-finding hearing and I must accept that if Judge Cleary made those findings and concluded the welfare of the children could not be best served by considering placement at home for the children that, if not appealed, is binding on this court, as it is of course on Judge Cleary when he made the decision in relation to Je, and again reviewed that decision in September and concluded that the changes were not significant and that Je could not be returned to the care of his parents.
I cannot accept that in the light of the findings of His Honour Judge Cleary as recently as 1 September that there has been this change in circumstances, this improvement in the father’s position that would justify the granting of leave to oppose the adoption.”
- It might have been wiser if, instead of using the phrase “binding on this court”, Judge Watson had chosen words that better reflected the legal position, but taking these passages in the round, and reading them in the context of the judgment as a whole, I do not think that Judge Watson either misdirected herself in law or proceeded in a manner that was not open to her.
The orders were overturned and sent back for re-hearing, but for all of the legal high-concept and anoraking and argument, it was the Judge’s decision that M should be circumcised before the adoption order was finally made that really won the appeal.