I’ve written many times about how unusual it is for a Court to revoke an adoption order. If memory serves, I have only found four examples before – one last year where the adopters physically abused the child who returned to birth mother and who felt very strongly about wanting the order revoked, one where a step-parent adoption was made where the mother had not told the birth father that she was terminally ill and if he had known that he would not have consented and I can’t remember the details of the other two – they were both from the 1970s.
This is the fifth one. Which also, bizarrely, became the sixth one as well. This child may well, in due course, have the unusual and unique history of being adopted twice by the same people.
RE J (A Minor: Revocation of Adoption) 2017
And it is just frankly, a mistake.
It seems that there was a hearing before a Circuit Judge. The mother attended, wanting to oppose the adoption. There was no social worker present, and it appeared that the Judge became muddled as to what application she was dealing with.
- The appropriate course might have been to impress on the mother the complexity of her application and her need to seek legal advice and/or representation. In any event, given the emphasis on ‘due process’ which operates, by definition, reciprocally between the parties, the mother ought to have been required to file evidence and directions given accordingly. From this, would have stemmed further directions for a statement in response by the Local Authority, appointment of a CAFCASS guardian and an inter partes re-listed hearing.
- It is abundantly clear, I regret to say, that the Judge became confused as to what application she was hearing and what procedure she was following. The Judge adjourned to consider her decision, handing down a written judgment on 3 October 2017. Very properly the Judge addressed the criteria in Section 47(5), concluding that the mother had failed to demonstrate sufficient change to justify ‘reopening the issue of the plan for [J]’. She observed that J was happily placed with devoted carers and that his placement ‘has offered a boost to his positive development’ and that ‘with every week that passes he is progressing well’. The Judge went on to note that the mother’s own assertion that she had stopped drinking alcohol (one of the causes of her parenting deficits) for a period of three months was insufficient to establish the first element of the test in Section 47. Judge Penna noted ‘there is a substantial risk that I would be setting her up to fail’. The Judge went on to consider the benefits of J’s placement in the context of the wider discretionary exercise and concluded that J’s mother had ‘not shown sufficient change for me to grant her leave to oppose the adoption’.
- Had the Judge stopped there all might have been well but, inexplicably she proceeded to grant an adoption order to the applicants, at this first directions hearing. She manifestly had insufficient material before her to make the Order which is perhaps the most draconian in the Family law canon. This was a complete aberration and plainly flawed. The Judgment was handed down on the 9 October 2017, circulated both to the parties and to the Registrar General, in order to make an entry in the Adopted Children Register in the form specified by regulations. It must be stated unambiguously that the Order provided that ‘the child is adopted by [K] and [N], the applicants.’ Finally, the Court directed that the entry in the Register of Live Births be marked with the word Adopted. As I understand it, J’s carers now believe him to be their adopted son.
When the Local Authority legal department received the order, they immediately realised that something had gone wrong. They contacted the Judge, who realised her mistake, but compounded the error by revoking the Adoption Order (which she did not have power to do. She perhaps had not realised that she was exceeding her power and also that this was only the fifth time that an adoption order had been revoked)
- A number of basic principles need reiteration. Once a child is adopted this entirely severs all legal ties with the birth family and introduces a new legal parental relationship with the adopter’s family. The Court does not make an adoption order unless it is satisfied both that nothing else will do and, for the particular child, nothing else is better. It follows, that the Court will be similarly cautious when contemplating a revocation of an adoption order which is intended to be final and lifelong. Such revocations were described by Pauffley J in PK the Mr & Mrs K  EWHC 2316 (Fam) as ‘highly exceptional and very particular’. Their ‘exceptional’ nature has been repeatedly emphasised see Re. B (Adoption: Jurisdiction to set aside)  Fam 239, Re. Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children (by their children’s guardian)  EWCA Civ 59, Re. W (Inherent Jurisdiction: Permission Application: Revocation and Adoption Order)  2 FLR 1609. I draw the inference that Judge Penna revoked the Order in recognition of her error on the basis of the facts and chronology that I have outlined. They permit of no other interpretation. The Judge did not set out her reasoning in any additional judgment.
- More problematically, the process of revocation requires the High Court to invoke its inherent jurisdiction. This signals both the rarity of the Order and, inevitably, its unavailability to Judge Penna sitting in the County Court. As it transpired, before the Order was drafted, or sealed, the matter came to the attention of HHJ Newton, the Designated Family Judge. Judge Newton informed me of the situation and transferred the case to me on 23 October 2017. Judge Newton’s prompt action was doubtless driven by her recognition of the real potential for distress to both the birth parents and the adopters in consequence of what has occurred. An equally swift response is therefore required from me. I have not requested the attendance of the parties and have been able properly to deal with this case administratively,
- It strikes me that there are two equally legitimate alternatives here, either to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal or to address it myself in this Court. The latter course has the obvious attraction of avoiding delay. Primarily however, I have come to the conclusion that as Judge Penna’s purported Revocation Order was outside her powers, thus plainly void and as it was intercepted before being drawn or sealed, consideration of revocation may properly be addressed in the High Court. On the facts of this case, probably uniquely, I am also satisfied that the Court can and indeed should consider revoking the Order of its own motion.
- For the reasons which are set out above, I consider the circumstances in which this adoption order was made are ‘highly exceptional and very particular’ to use Pauffley J’s elegant and succinct phase. Whilst the Law Reports do not reveal this situation as having occurred before, there are some similarities with Re. K (Adoption & Wardship)  2 FLR 221. There the Court of Appeal indicated that where an adoption procedure had been fatally flawed, an application to revoke should be made to the High Court. Here there was, in short, a complete absence of due process and a wholesale abandonment of correct procedure and guidance. That is a clear basis upon which to consider whether the Order should be revoked.
- I am profoundly conscious of the impact of my decision on both the birth parents and the prospective adopters both of whom will be distressed and unsettled by this uncertainty. I would however, emphasise one important and, in my judgment, inalienable right, namely, that of J to know in the future that the process by which he may have been permanently separated from his family was characterised by fairness, detailed scrutiny and integrity.
So, this was not the finest hour of the family Court. But by way of scant consolation, I will tell you all about an Australian Court, where the Court was deciding whether a fall from a horse constituted a “motor accident” (the horse was startled by a car horn and bolted). The judgment in the case was 138 pages long, which seems long, but perhaps it was warranted. What was NOT warranted, was the Judge reading the whole thing aloud to the parties, a process which took 17 HOURS.
FOUR FULL DAYS of listening to a judgment.
And the Judge in question, to keep the suspense going, didn’t hint at the result until part way through day three.
I appreciate that I am a sad legal geek, and there are many judgments that I really enjoy reading. But even I would baulk at sitting and listening to someone read out a judgment over 17 hours.
If Mr Justice Peter Jackson was delivering a judgment on conjoined twins, one of whom was a Jehovah’s Witness and one who was Plymouth Brethern and there were allegations of Fabricated or Induced Illness, AND the Judge had managed to deliver the judgment via séance with Richard Burton reading it out loud on his behalf (with occasional bursts of Peter Sellers doing voices of any witness who was quoted verbatim), I’d still have had enough after a day. Four days would be excessive even for that.
And oh, by the way, the Judge in that case was overturned on appeal, so a complete waste of four days.
It is also of concern, as Payne JA has pointed out, that the primary judge made, at best, minor reference in his reasons to the framework within which the legal questions posed for consideration fell
If you’ve made me sit and listen for four full days, I don’t expect the legal framework to have only been given MINOR REFERENCE….