I saw this case break in the Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11754837/Couple-told-they-are-too-old-to-look-after-their-granddaughter.html where the line was that grandparents who were able, willing and capable of looking after their grand-daughter were turned down on the basis of their age and the child would be adopted.
That immediately didn’t sound right. It had the immediate ring of “I think that you’ll find its a little bit more complicated than that”. [If you do find yourself being outraged and appalled by a case and you haven’t actually read the judgment, that’s usually a safe answer. Of course, there are cases where reading the judgment actually does appall you at the scandal that’s gone on, but at least you are now being appalled on an informed basis]
That would fall extremely short of the legal tests involved, and you can see from the Telegraph article that they do include the comment from the Social Services department involved, who said flatly that age was not the deciding factor in the case.
The judgment is now available and people can see it for themselves
Re C 2015
You can see that the grandparents made an application to Court, to challenge the assessment done of them that did not recommend that they could care for the child. The Court heard from them, including hearing evidence from the grandfather (who sounds like a thoroughly nice man, to be honest). The Court then applied the statutory tests and the case law guidance to whether they should have that application granted and whether the child could live with them, or whether adoption was the right way forward.
Additionally, you can see that whilst the Judge does mention the age of the grandparents, it is mentioned in passing rather than being the reason for the decision.
The reason for the decision, very simply, was that the mother had considerable mental health difficulties, including cutting herself in front of the child, that the mother had a very difficult relationship with the grandparents and that they were not going to be able to shield the child from these things.
The main concern however it seems to me is the fact that this family would be in my judgment completely unable to cope with the triangular relationship of C, M and the grandparents. Mr G expressed in evidence that he hoped that his daughter was going to recover her mental health, that she had had some recent treatment that over the next four years might lead to her mental health recovering. I very much hope that that is the case and it may well be right, but he was very clear that he was going to continue his relationship with his daughter and indeed he is to be commended for that. He said he saw her yesterday. I just cannot envisage how the triangular relationship can possibly work. Dr Martinez in her report expresses the concern that mother is unable to bring up C because she is likely to expose C to extreme behaviours – ‘scary situations’ is the word she uses – and she is referring to the incident in January when M in front of C self-harmed, cutting herself, and C was clearly in a scary situation witnessing her mother bleeding. That is exactly the type of situation which Dr Martinez envisages recurring and which puts C at the risk of significant harm if she were to be placed with her mother. If I were to envisage C being placed with her grandparents it seems to me that it is only a matter of time before C is put in that situation again. This is because of the conflict which the grandparents will experience in their meetings with their daughter, who they will not be able to turn away and in the conflict that is likely ultimately to create and which C is inevitably going to experience. Their personal circumstances are not ideal but ultimately it is that relationship which it seems to me makes it impossible for their application to succeed. Given the disruption to the local authority Care Plan against the likelihood of success of their application, I am afraid that I have no hesitation in saying that that application should therefore be dismissed.
Now, you may agree or disagree that this is a valid reason for saying no to these grandparents; but it certainly isn’t a decision that was made because of their age.
I don’t fault the grandparents at all for this – Courts can be confusing and scary places, and Judges use language and concepts that aren’t commonplace for ordinary people. Add to that, that of course this was an emotionally charged hearing and it is little surprise that the grandparents left not completely understanding all the reasons why the Judge said no to them, and that they got the wrong end of the stick.
Nor do I blame the journalist – if the judgment had borne out what the grandparents said, that a Court had ordered that the child be adopted purely because the grandparents were too old, that would be a miscarriage of justice and a scandal worth reporting. Of course, the journalist did have the clear rebuttal from Social Services that the case wasn’t about age, but also they had the comments from the solicitor engaged to represent these grandparents in an appeal (which I doubt has any legs at all). So it is not the flaw we often see in the Telegraph of the story having a single source – the journalist here did try to get multiple sources and to stand the story up.
You could make a criticism that the journalist didn’t try to get the judgment from the Court or wait for it on Bailii, but I think that’s to confuse the worlds of law and journalism. Firstly, news stories are time sensitive. If the Telegraph waited for it to be published, they could have missed the scoop element that they had. And secondly, given that most lawyers can’t get an answer out of the Court service, what makes you think a journalist enquiring about “there’s been this case, I don’t have the case number, but can I have an anonymised copy of the judgment” is going to get any better response.
So I think it was okay for the Telegraph to run the story. The problem, however, is that the Telegraph’s version of the story – that social workers and Courts rule people out just based on age, is the one that fluorishes and replicates and spreads, and the actual truth that the reasons for the decision were based on a Judge’s assessment of their ability to keep the child safe from mother, won’t get out there.
It is really important in care proceedings that family members who are able to help out, support the parents and ultimately offer a home if the parents can’t do it, come forward and aren’t put off. So, the story here spreads a myth that simply isn’t true.
I do appreciate that newspapers don’t exist solely as a vehicle to communicate the truth. They have to sell copies, they have to get clicks on their articles, they have to exist as a commercial venture. If they print articles that are factually accurate but that nobody wants to read, then the advertisers who want to sell their conservatories, plates with Princess Diana on them, safes disguised as baked-bean tins, and mustard coloured polyester slacks*, won’t be placing those adverts.
I can’t actually work out a sexy way for the Telegraph and other news outlets to tell this story and correct the myth. The best I can do is “Family Courts do still screw up from time to time, but they didn’t on this occasion. Sorry” – and even I probably wouldn’t read that article.
[* Other products are, I’m sure, advertised in the Telegraph , and that’s just the sort of flippant generalisation and stereotyping that I would criticise them for when writing about social workers wearing corduroy trousers and knitting their own muesli. It was just a cheap gag… – now, if you want to find “cheap gags” in the advertising section of a publication you are looking for something in the newsagents on an entirely different shelf to the Telegraph]