The Court of Appeal had to look at what happens or what should happen, when there is a conflict between the Local Authority plan for a child and what the foster carers (who had signed up as concurrent carers, or ‘foster to adopt’ under the new language of the statute) thought the plan should be.
Re T (a child: Early Permanence Placement) 2015
- The facts can be stated quite shortly. T was born on 20 November 2014. T’s parents signed an agreement in accordance with section 20 of the Children Act 1989 the next day, 21 November 2014, and T was placed the same day with a married couple I shall refer to as Mr and Mrs X.
- Mr and Mrs X had been approved as adopters by the local authority on 14 November 2014. Shortly before T’s birth, on 17 November 2014, they were invited by the local authority, and agreed, to care for T, on his birth, as foster carers with a view to adopting him if adoption was required: what is known as an early permanence placement. T, as I have said, was placed with them on 21 November 2014. The local authority commenced care proceedings, with a plan for adoption, on 3 December 2014. Mr and Mrs X signed an early permanency placement agreement the same day. On 18 December 2014 an interim care order was made. It remains in place. T remains with Mr and Mrs X.
- On 29 January 2015 T’s paternity was established by DNA testing. At an adjourned case management hearing the next day, 30 January 2015, the father indicated that he did not wish to be assessed as a carer for T, but he put his parents forward for assessment. An initial viability assessment of the paternal grandparents was completed on 13 February 2015. It was positive. The full kinship assessment of the paternal grandparents was completed on 1 May 2015. Again, it was positive. Following a professionals’ meeting on 8 May 2015, the local authority told Mr and Mrs X that it had abandoned its plan for adoption in favour of a placement with the paternal grandparents under a special guardianship order. This plan is supported by both the mother and the father, who accept that neither of them is able to care for T. The position of T’s guardian is that the court does not at present have before it the evidence upon which to make a proper evaluation of what the guardian says are the two realistic options: a family placement with the paternal grandparents or adoption by Mr and Mrs X.
- On 20 May 2015 Mr and Mrs X issued an application for leave to apply for an adoption order (see sections 42(4) and 44(4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002). The application came before Judge Troy on 22 May 2015. By then the care proceedings had been on foot for a little over 24 weeks. She made two orders. In one she gave Mr and Mrs X leave to apply for an adoption order. In the other she joined them as parties to the care proceedings. In accordance with directions she gave on that occasion, the matter came back before Judge Troy for directions on 1 June 2015. The paternal grandparents indicated their wish to apply for a special guardianship order (their formal application followed on 19 June 2015). Judge Troy joined them as parties to the care proceedings and consolidated the care proceedings and the adoption proceedings. She extended the time limit for the proceedings (see section 32(5) of the 1989 Act) to 34 weeks.
- On 22 May 2015 Mr and Mrs X gave the local authority notice in accordance with sections 44(2) and 44(3) of the 2002 Act.
There’s quite a lot in there, so I’ll break it down.
The Children and Families Act 2014 tells Local Authorities that they must actively consider looking for a “foster to adopt” foster placement when they are placing a child. That’s a set of foster carers who are also approved as adopters, with a view to if things pan out that the child can’t be placed within the family, those carers will go on to adopt the child. The idea is that it reduces uncertainty and delay for the child and cuts down the number of moves.
The Local Authority did that in this case (and did nothing wrong in doing so – that’s what the Act tells them to do). The foster carers entered into the arrangement thinking that they would probably go on to adopt the child.
The child’s grandparents put themselves forward as carers, the Local Authority assessed them and considered that they would be able to care for the child.
The Local Authority told the foster carers that the plan was no longer adoption, but was placement within the extended family.
The foster carers disagreed and put in their own private application to adopt.
The Judge gave the foster carers the leave of the Court to make that application.
Then the Local Authority, the father and the grandparents appealed.
The appeal arguments of the LA, father and grandparents were these:-
- The grounds of appeal and the parties’ submissions
- As I have said, the father, the paternal grandparents and the local authority made common cause. In large measure their submissions were very much to the same effect and made the same points. I shall take them together.
- Their submissions can be summarised as follows:i) Judge Troy was wrong to give Mr and Mrs X leave to apply for an adoption order. Their application was premature and should not have been considered until such time as the court had determined that T’s future welfare required his adoption rather than a family placement. That process has not been in any way altered by the implementation of the statutory early permanence placement scheme. Mr Tyler adds that, if the appeal against Mr and Mrs X’s joinder is successful, their application for an adoption order will be left hanging in the air. So, he submits, on that ground also the appeal on this point should succeed.
ii) Furthermore, Mr and Mrs X had failed to demonstrate that they had a real prospect of success in relation to an application for an adoption order, and that T’s welfare required their being given leave to apply for, such an order.
iii) Judge Troy was wrong to join Mr and Ms X as parties to the care proceedings and failed to consider the procedural ramifications and consequences of doing so.
iv) Judge Troy failed to have sufficient regard or attach appropriate weight to the authorities about the primacy of family placements.
v) Judge Troy failed to have sufficient regard or attach appropriate weight to the fact that Mr and Mrs X were temporary foster carers and that in the early permanency placement agreement dated 3 December 2014 they had expressly agreed that their adoption of T would be contingent on his not being rehabilitated to his family.
vi) On the contrary Judge Troy gave excessive weight to the facts (a) that Mr and Mrs X were approved adopters and that the placement had been made by way of an early permanence placement, (b) that they had cared for T for 6 months and (c) that there was evidence of attachment between T and them.
As the argument developed, it became apparent that there was a degree of overlap in these submissions.
- By way of elaboration, a number of points were made which it is convenient to take together.
- Mr Tyler submitted that it is wrong in principle to allow state-sanctioned carers to acquire the right to set themselves up against a family member as a potential permanent carer for a child simply by virtue of an unexceptional period of time caring for an unexceptional child in an unexceptional case. Particularly is this so, he says, where, as here, the aspiration of the foster carers is the non-consensual adoption of a child outside his birth family. As the father put it in his grounds of appeal, Mr and Mrs X are the product of the care process and should not be part of it. According to Mr Tyler, there is simply no place in the statutory process under Part IV of the 1989 Act for foster carers who are not otherwise entitled to participate by virtue of family status, statutory responsibilities, or relevant social work or other expertise.
- Mr Donnelly submitted that the analysis of adoption as an option in care proceedings is limited to consideration of adoption in principle and does not involve an assessment of the individual merits of particular proposed adopters. Least of all, he submitted, should care proceedings become, as would be the consequence of Judge Troy’s order, an arena in which prospective adopters should be enabled to probe alleged deficits in a family placement and compare it unfavourably with what they could offer. It is the children’s guardian whose task it is to scrutinise the local authority’s plan and, if appropriate, criticise it and invite the court to reject it. To like effect Mr Tyler submitted that the proper people to test the local authority’s assertions, assessments and care plans, in order to assist the process of quasi-inquisitorial judicial critical analysis in the care proceedings, are the parents and the child(ren), the latter through the children’s guardian. Miss Anning made much the same point when she submitted that the very idea of a competition between the birth family and prospective adopters at the stage of deciding whether a child should be placed for adoption is to shift the focus away from a true analysis of what is fundamentally in the child’s best interests in favour of the competing views of the adults. And, she suggested, it ran the risk of a simple comparison as to which placement would be better for the child, the very thing that all the jurisprudence demonstrates is not the right question (see, for example, Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33,  2 FLR 332, referred to below).
- Accordingly, it was submitted, Mr and Mrs X’s joinder to the care proceedings serves no useful purpose; it does not provide a means for the court to consider an option that it otherwise would not. Moreover, there is, they say, no need for Mr and Mrs X to be parties to the care proceedings to demonstrate that they are suitable prospective adopters for T, for they have already been positively assessed. If and to the extent that the court needs to consider adoption as an alternative to a family placement all it needs to know is that T has the best prospects of being adopted given Mr and Mrs X’s wish to adopt him.
- As Mr Donnelly put it, the fact that this was an early permanence placement did not give Mr and Mrs X an elevated status, nor did that (or any of the other matters) create a ‘status quo’ requiring the kind of balancing of ‘status quo’ and ‘family’ contemplated in Re M’P-P (Children)  EWCA Civ 584 (see below). In reality, as Mr Tyler put it, the asserted ‘status quo’ and attachment in the present case do not differ in any significant way from what exists in a large proportion of similar care cases where a child has been successfully fostered for a short, interim, period.
- Mr Tyler conjured up the spectre of social engineering. He suggested that parents in care proceedings will be very much less likely to agree to the potential benefits of a fostering for adoption placement. He pointed to the inevitability of delay given the requirements of sections 42(4) and 44(4) of the 2002 Act
Summarising these very briefly – it is the task of the Court to decide what orders should be made, and Mr and Mrs X (the carwers and would-be adopters) come into the equation IF AND ONLY IF the Court is satisfied that nothing other than adoption would do. To bring Mr and Mrs X into the equation before that point potentially muddies the waters and gets into a social engineering situation where the Court is deciding which family has more to offer the child, Mr and Mrs X or the grandparents.
The arguments against the appeal were made by the adopters and the Children’s Guardian. (I pause here to note that the collective brainpower in the Court room must have been making the air crackle)
- Essentially, Miss Scriven and Miss Fottrell submitted that Judge Troy was right to decide as she did and for the reasons she gave. There are, they said, two realistic options before the court and Judge Troy was right in her approach and in recognising that the court, in the light of the statutory framework and the authorities, had to evaluate both the realistic options and to assess each in the context of the other. How, Miss Scriven asked rhetorically, was the court to do this, as she put it, balancing the competing arguments for and against those two options, unless Mr and Mrs X were able to participate in the care proceedings and make representations?
- Miss Scriven submitted that the local authority’s approach was far too rigid and absolute, and inappropriately minimising of Mr and Mrs X’s role. As the guardian put it, whatever the strength of the arguments in favour of a family placement, it cannot be said that Mr and Mrs X’s application has no prospect of success. After all, as Miss Scriven pointed out, Mrs X is the only mother T has ever known. What is required is for each case to be looked at in a case-specific way. Reliance was placed on what McFarlane LJ had said in Re M’P-P (Children)  EWCA Civ 584, paras 46-50 (see below). Reliance was placed on what was said to be the reality that T and Mr and Mrs X have, as a result of Mr and Mrs X caring for T, an established family life together. Mrs X, it is said, is at the centre of T’s life. Miss Fottrell said that Mr and Mrs X are de facto parents and if T is to be removed from them they need to be heard, particularly if what is being proposed is T’s placement, albeit within his family, with people with whom he has no relationship. T’s welfare requires this reality to be carefully examined, and this requires the participation of Mr and Mrs X, precisely because it is not an argument that will be supported either by the local authority or by the birth family, all of whom will be arguing vigorously against it. As Miss Fottrell put it, it is difficult to see how Mr and Mrs X’s case could be properly heard if they were not joined to the care proceedings.
- Furthermore, and relying upon Singh v Entry Clearance Officer, New Delhi  EWCA Civ 1075,  QB 608,  1 FLR 308, it was said that there exists between Mr and Mrs X and T ‘family life’ within the meaning of Article 8, which in turn, it is said, entitles them to a fair hearing in accordance with Article 6: see Soderback v Sweden (1998) 29 EHRR 95.
Again, in a summary – as Mr and Mrs X are the only people the child has ever lived with and they have an article 8 right to family life, their application for adoption is an application they can legitimately make, and a legitimate option before the Court. If they are robbed of the chance to make such an application, how can that argument be properly made before the Court? And if they don’t get the chance to make their application, their family life is being disrupted without them having a chance to contribute to the arguments. [Also that as Re B-S requires the Court to consider all of the realistic options, how can the Court fairly proceed without one of them being presented]
Boiling it all down, it seems to be this central dilemma
“Do foster to adopters have a stake within care proceedings and can make their arguments just as any other interested party, or ought they stay out of it and just wait for the Court to decide whether this is an adoption case at all?”
The historical approach of the Court to joining foster carers to the proceedings:-
- From the very earliest days of the 1989 Act (which, it will be remembered, came into force in October 1991), the court has set its face against the joinder in care proceedings of foster-parents or prospective adopters. Two decisions of this court explain why.
- In Re G (Minors) (Interim Care Order)  2 FLR 839, the judge had made an order joining foster-parents as parties to care proceedings. This court declined to interfere with his order, describing the case as being “exceptional … with many unusual features.” However, Waite LJ added this (page 846):
“In ordinary circumstances I would not expect the court to regard it as appropriate to join foster-parents as parties to proceedings of this kind. To do so would in most cases run counter to the clear policy of the Act reflected in ss 9(3) and 10(3). The assistance afforded by foster-parents to the effective functioning of any system of child care is invaluable and should never be discouraged. Theirs is not a role, nevertheless, which would normally make it necessary for them to be joined formally as parties to proceedings in which the future upbringing of the children in their temporary care is in issue. There will generally be ample means for making their views known to the court, either directly as witnesses or indirectly through the inquiries of the guardian ad litem, without the necessity of adding them formally as parties.”
- Some fifteen years later, this court said much the same thing again. In Re A; Coventry County Council v CC and A  EWCA Civ 1383,  1 FLR 959, a foster mother sought leave to apply for an adoption order in accordance with section 42(6) of the 2002 Act after the court, in that case the family proceedings court, had made a placement order. So the forensic context was very different from the one with which we are concerned. However, the judgment of Wilson LJ, as he then was, is of illuminating importance because he had to confront the argument of Mr Stephen Cobb QC, as he then was, appearing on behalf of the local authority. Wilson LJ summarised Mr Cobb’s argument as follows (para 35):
“In the end Mr Cobb has been constrained somewhat to retreat from the proposition that the court which hears care and placement applications is the appropriate forum for resolution of any issue about the candidacy for adoption of, for example, a foster mother. He still maintains, however, that it is an appropriate forum. Challenged to furnish a reported example of resolution of such an issue in such proceedings, he cites the decision of Hedley J in Re R (Care: Plan for Adoption: Best Interest)  1 FLR 483.”
- Wilson LJ, with whom both Ward LJ and Moore-Bick LJ agreed, was having none of this. He said (para 24):
“The application for a placement order required the magistrates to consider the principle whether the best interests of A required that she be adopted but not to determine the identity of the optimum adoptive home for her.”
- He elaborated this (para 34):
“I do not agree with the judge that the proper forum for consideration of the identity of the optimum adopter or adopters for a child is the court which makes the care and placement orders. For, in terms of the adoption of the child and in contradistinction to the child’s committal into care, the placement order is not the court’s last word. Its last word is articulated when the adoption order is made; and any court which makes a placement order knows that any issue in relation to the identity of the optimum adopter or adopters of the child can be ventilated in an application for an adoption order, which is precisely what this foster mother aspires to make. In my view the magistrates were rightly unattracted to the suggestion, albeit that it was later endorsed by His Honour Judge Bellamy, that the foster mother might in some way join in the proceedings before them. As a judge of the family justice system for almost 15 years, I have never encountered a case in which an aspiring adopter participated in the hearing of proceedings relating to whether a child should be placed for adoption, or should be freed for adoption under the old law set out in s 18 of the Adoption Act 1976. For the law provides a forum in which issues as to the identity of the optimum adopter can later be ventilated. In my view, therefore, the requirement for close scrutiny of the care plan should in principle not extend to an address of any issue as to the identity of the optimum adopter or adopters for the child.”
My own experience mirrors that of Wilson LJ.
- Referring to Re R (Care: Plan for Adoption: Best Interests)  1 FLR 483, Wilson LJ said (para 35):
“I respectfully agree with Hedley J’s observations. But they are of no assistance to Mr Cobb. To say that the credentials of proposed adopters may exceptionally need to be considered in care proceedings in order that the court should better be able to reach the central decision whether the child should be removed from his family and adopted is not to say that care or indeed placement proceedings are an appropriate forum for resolution of an issue between a proposed adopter and the local authority as to the merits of her candidacy.”
In short, foster carers or prospective adopters should not be involved in care proceedings as parties unless there are some exceptional circumstances.
So, in this case, were there any?
- In my judgment, there is no reason to depart from this long-established approach and, indeed, every reason to follow it. There is nothing in Article 8 or in the Strasbourg jurisprudence which calls for any different approach. There is nothing in the recent case-law on adoption (In re B (A Child) (Care Proceedings: Threshold Criteria)  UKSC 33,  1 WLR 1911,  2 FLR 1075, In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose)  EWCA Civ 1146,  1 WLR 563,  1 FLR 1035, M v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and others  EWCA Civ 1479,  1 WLR 2441 and In re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach)  EWCA Civ 1625,  1 WLR 3273) which justifies, let alone requires, any change in approach. Nor, in particular, is there anything in the status or function of an early permanence placement foster carer which either justifies or requires any change in approach.
- I agree, therefore, with the essential thrust of the submissions by Mr Donnelly, Mr Tyler and Miss Anning as I have summarised them in paragraphs 28-29 above. The care judge is concerned at most with consideration of adoption in principle, not with evaluating the merits of particular proposed adopters. There is no need for the prospective adopters to be joined, for it is the children’s guardian (who will be aware of Mr and Mrs X’s stance and can, if necessary, address their suitability) who has the task, indeed is under the duty, of subjecting the local authority’s care plan to rigorous scrutiny and, where, appropriate, criticism. So, I agree, Mr and Mrs X’s joinder to the care proceedings is inappropriate. Moreover, as was pointed out, and I agree, there is no need for Mr and Mrs X to be parties to the care proceedings to demonstrate that they are suitable prospective adopters for T, for they have already been positively assessed.
- The truth is, as Mr Tyler submitted, that, putting on one side Mr and Mrs X’s role as early permanence placement foster carers, and, I emphasise, without in any way wishing to belittle or diminish all that they have done for T, this is a case where there has been an unexceptional period of time caring for an unexceptional child in an unexceptional case. This, in my judgment, is not an exceptional case justifying any departure from the general approach. For the reality is, as Mr Tyler correctly put it, that the ‘status quo’ and attachment on which Miss Scriven and Miss Fottrell placed such emphasis do not differ significantly from what is found in the many similar care cases where a child has been successfully fostered for a short period. Moreover, and to repeat, there is, in my judgment, nothing in the status or function of an early permanence placement foster carer which either justifies or requires any change in the hitherto conventional and long-established approach.
- To the extent I have indicated, I therefore agree with the thrust of Mr Tyler’s submissions.
- Moreover, there is, as Miss Anning pointed out, a very real risk that if, in a case such as this, the forensic process is allowed to become in effect a dispute between the prospective adopters and the birth family, the court will be diverted into an illegitimate inquiry as to which placement will be better for the child. That, it cannot be emphasised too much, is not the question before the court. I repeat, because the point is so important, what the Strasbourg court said in Y v United Kingdom:
“family ties may only be severed in very exceptional circumstances … It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”
Indeed, there are passages in Judge Troy’s judgment – for example, where she refers to a “comparative analysis of these two options”, without at the same time spelling out that adoption is appropriate only as ‘a last resort’ and if ‘nothing else will do’ – which do make me wonder whether she may not in fact have fallen into precisely that error here.
- There is another significant matter which, in my judgment, points in the same direction. The effect of sections 44(2) and (3) of the 2002 Act is to impose a period of three months’ delay in a case such as this. This is an appropriate aspect of the statutory scheme in relation to private law adoptions. But it would sit most uncomfortably if, as suggested in the present case, the statutory scheme under the 2002 Act is to be run in tandem with the quite separate statutory scheme in relation to care proceedings under the 1999 Act, required, by the recently amended section 32(1)(a)(ii) of the 1989 Act, to be concluded within a total period of only 26 weeks.
- Before us, Miss Scriven and Miss Fottrell relied, as had Judge Troy, on the recent case-law emphasising that the court must address and analyse all the realistic options. We were taken through the cases (In re B, In re B-S, M v Blackburn and In re R), but with all respect to Judge Troy they are not in point and do not justify the course she took.
- What those cases are authority for is the proper approach in cases where (see In re B-S, para 33) the court is being asked by a local authority to approve a care plan for adoption or being asked to make a non-consensual placement order or adoption order. It was in this context that, as we made clear in In re B-S, para 34, “The evidence must address all the options which are realistically possible and must contain an analysis of the arguments for and against each option.” M v Blackburn was a challenge to the making of a non-consensual placement order, and it was to that forensic contest that Ryder LJ was directing his observations (see, for example, para 32, where he said “A court making a placement order decision must conduct a five part exercise.”). The same observation applies to In re R. But the case before us is not such a case. The local authority is not seeking either an adoption order or a placement order, nor is it seeking approval of a care plan for adoption.
- It would turn the In re B-S learning on its head to assert that, in a case where the local authority is not seeking any order which brings In re B-S into play, the requirement to consider every realistic option justifies, let alone requires, the joinder of a party to argue for the adoption for which the local authority itself is not applying. In my judgment, the In re B-S learning applies where the local authority is inviting the court either to approve a care plan for adoption or to make a non-consensual placement order or adoption order. It does not apply where, as here, the local authority is seeking none of these things.
- Accordingly, in my judgment, Mr and Mrs X ought not to have been joined as parties to the care proceedings, and the father’s appeal must be allowed.
- I turn to the local authority’s challenge to the order giving Mr and Mrs X leave to apply for an adoption order.
- In my judgment, the application was premature, as was Judge Troy’s decision. There are two reasons for this. First, this was an application which properly fell to be considered after the conclusion of the care proceedings and once the court had concluded, if it did, that T’s welfare required his adoption. This is the approach which, in my judgment, is generally applicable, and nothing in the statutory early permanence placement scheme justifies any different approach.
- The other reason is graphically illustrated by the forensic difficulty in which Judge Troy found herself, as she described in three passages in her judgment which I have already quoted in context but which bear repetition:
“Mr and Mrs X have only very limited information about the care proceedings in respect of T in general or about the paternal grandparents in particular.”
“The local authority has not sought to place before me any information about the paternal grandparents. I have no information about what they may be able to offer to T, about the benefits or any detriments for T in placing him in the care of his paternal grandparents.”
“The position taken by local authority … means … that I must determine this application without being in a position to consider the relative merits of the two proposed placements for T.”
- None of this, in my judgment, is any matter for criticism of the local authority, let alone of Mr and Mrs X. It simply reflects the forensic reality given the stage the care proceedings had reached – as Judge Troy noted, the children’s guardian had not yet filed a report or even reached a concluded view –, a forensic reality which simply goes to demonstrate that the task which Judge Troy attempted to embark upon was premature. Moreover, her lack of knowledge, shared it may be noted by Mr and Mrs X, meant that, try as she might, Judge Troy did not have the materials which she needed to have if she was properly to determine their application in accordance with sections 42(4) and 44(4) of the 2002 Act.
- Accordingly, in my judgment, Mr and Mrs X ought not to have been given leave to apply for an adoption order, and the local authority’s appeal must be allowed.
There might come a case where the circumstances are sufficiently exceptional to allow a foster carer to make these applications, but it is rather hard to think of one. I don’t think, tracking it through, that the Court of Appeal actually determined whether the foster carers had acquired any article 8 rights or whether as a result they had article 6 rights to a fair hearing, but the thrust of the case is that there were not the sort of exceptional circumstances that would have warranted granting their applications for leave to be joined as a party and to make their application for a private adoption.
As the Court of Appeal say at the end of the case :-
- Before parting from this case there is one final matter I need to refer to. These proceedings have inevitably imposed an enormous strain on Mr and Mrs X. Anxiety and anguish was etched on their faces as they sat before us. The outcome will come as a terrible blow. They have suggested that the local authority was unduly dismissive in November 2014 of the risk that they would not be able to adopt T and, after the paternal grandparents had emerged as contenders for T’s care, unduly dismissive of the possibility that the paternal grandparents would receive the positive assessment which, in the event, they did.
- We are in no position to evaluate those concerns which do not, in any event, ultimately bear upon the issues which we have to decide. Without, I emphasise, expressing any view as to what was actually going on, I merely note what I would hope is obvious: that in every case of an early permanence placement there must, from the outset and at every stage thereafter, be complete frankness coupled with a robust appraisal of the realities.