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Category Archives: children and families act 2014

Crisis in infinite Courts

 

The President has published his 15th View from the President’s Chambers, and it is a doozy. We waited a long long time for the 14th, but the 15th came soon after it.

 

http://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/15th-view-from-the-president-s-chambers-care-cases-the-looming-crisis#.V-I-7jU1Ouc

 

It has been pretty apparent for a long while that the number of care proceedings has just continued to climb from the post Baby P figures, which at the time everyone thought was a temporary surge in caution and new referrals and would eventually settle down.  (Back then it went from just over 6,000 per year, to around 8,000 per year.) It didn’t. There was a very short period when the numbers dipped, but those were clearly attributable to the issue of the brand new Public Law Outline and professionals getting to grips with the new model of doing things.  Over the last 8 years, care proceedings have just continued to climb, year on year, the only thing that differed was by how much.

But then over the last two years, the rate of increase dramatically shot up.

As the President observes in his View, we’re going to be pretty close to 15,000 sets of care proceedings this year, and are likely to pass that next year. He gloomily predicts that we are heading for 20,000 a year over the next few years (I’m not sure that I agree, and I’ll explain why later)

The critical thing, of course, is that this increase of between 200 and 300 % in the volume of care proceedings over the last ten years has not been matched by a 200-300% increase in the number of Judges or Court sitting days.  Nor by the number of social workers, or Guardians, or care lawyers.  And vitally important for the Crisis that even the President says is looming, is that there has ABSOLUTELY not been a 200-300% increase in the legal aid budget for care cases – in fact there’s not only not been increases in line with inflation, but actual cuts.

At the moment, each care case has a fixed fee in terms of solicitors (they can cost a bit more if the case takes twice as much work as the average) , so when care cases increase, the number of those fixed fees increase. When, as at the moment the increase in volume is about 23% on last year, which was in turn 20% on the year before, you can see that the portion of the Legal Aid budget that deals with fixed fees for solicitors, which has had NO INCREASE AT ALL is under huge pressure.

The other costs in terms of legal aid are – counsel’s fees, and the more cases that are in Court, the higher those will go – particularly as solicitors have more volume of cases to run in the office and are able to go to Court less, those costs will go up. And experts fees – there had been a considerable reduction in the use of experts since the 2014 law changes which meant that before the Court could agree an expert they had to be satisfied that it was NECESSARY rather than just helpful or useful.  But, that was all working on the basis that social workers would be doing more and more of the assessments, and if their volume of work has gone up like that, that’s less possible.

My best case scenario is that the legal aid budget for care proceedings is around 40% overspent from 2 years ago (it takes time for all the payments to filter through, but we could be in for that experience again where the Legal Aid Agency write no cheques at all in February and March, because they’ve got no money – it happened about 6 years ago, I think. If that happens now, firms will go under).  I think the overspend might be far worse than that, in reality.

 

So I agree entirely with the President when he says :-

 

Following implementation of the recommendations of the Family Justice Review, the average duration of care cases fell rapidly month by month – the graph, accordingly, showing a constant falling line. Over the last year or so the graph has ‘flat-lined’. That it has not, as yet, begun to climb must be a matter for congratulation to everyone involved in making the system work. To keep the line level as the caseload increased by 14% is an astonishing achievement. I hope I turn out to be wrong but I do not believe that this level of achievement can be maintained as caseloads continue to rise. The fact is that, on the ground, the system is – the people who make the system work are – at full stretch. We cannot, and I have for some time now been making clear that I will not, ask people to work harder. Everyone – everyone – is working as hard as they can.

We must, accordingly, assume that the line on the graph will start to go up – to move in the wrong direction. We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis.

 

That’s brave and honest language from the man in charge of the system, and he is to be commended for it. Every time I’ve looked at the CAFCASS care demand stats, which are published each month, I’ve thought ‘either these numbers take a sharp dive over the next few months, or we’re all f***ed.’   And far from taking a dive, they’ve just ramped up higher and higher.

There IS no more money, there is not going to BE any more money.  So, either the Government and Legal Aid Agency work out a way of cutting VOLUMES, or COST PER CASE, or they just simply don’t pay nearly half the bills that come in, with no prospect of being able to pay them next year either.

 

As the President says
There are, in principle, three possible causes for the increase:

  1. that the amount of child abuse/neglect is increasing;
  2. that local authorities are becoming more adept at identifying child abuse/neglect and taking action to deal with it;
  3. that local authorities are setting more demanding standards – in other words, lowering the threshold for intervention.

I do not believe that child abuse/neglect is rising by 14% let alone 20% a year. So this cannot be the sole explanation. It follows that changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role.

 

I think that there are fairly clear correlations between poverty in our society and neglect, and between poverty and substance and alcohol abuse (that’s not for a SECOND to say that all abuse is perpetuated by poor people, or that poor people are child abusers – just that as the level of poverty increases in the country, you’ll see a corresponding increase in the levels of neglect and alcohol misuse and substance misuse).  So I think there’s going to be an ongoing underlying increase until this country’s economic fortunes turn round.

 

Equally, I think that cuts to services that support and help families – which have happened and continue to happen, inevitably mean that some families without those services will fall into care proceedings.

My guess is that those two factors account for some of the underlying increase year on year – that 6-10% annual increase.  But the massive spikes – I don’t think that they are that, and there’s not the clear “Baby P” fear factor that we all thought accounted for the increases since 2008  (incidentally, the timing of the big increase and continued increases rather than care proceedings being roughly stable each year corresponds with the 2008 financial crisis and austerity since that time, disporportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in society. With the benefit of hindsight, it wasn’t so much a Baby P factor as a ‘sub-prime mortgage’ factor)

 

The spike , my thinking is, is largely a result of the set of decisions within care proceedings that meant that Local Authorities who had children in care under s20 with parents not objecting to that were getting hammered by Judges for not having gone to Court earlier and being made to pay damages and costs.   Now, this is difficult, because I think that s20 drift (particularly with parents whose capacity to consent was compromised) was a genuine problem and a real issue and it needed to be tackled.  So I welcome those cases (though I think the damages figures are rather plucked out of the air in comparison to personal injury damages quantum), but you simply can’t get away from this :-

 

Judges told Local Authorities that if they held on to s20 cases and didn’t issue, they’d be told off, made to pay compensation, made to pay costs, and be in published judgments, so local and national press could report on them getting a judicial kicking.

Local Authorities issued way more proceedings.

 

 

Do I think s20 drift is an issue that needs addressing? Hell yes.

Do I think it is such an important issue that it is worth risking either – LAA not paying cheques for 3-4 months of the year and solicitors firms going out of business?  OR the alternative which is clearly attractive to the Legal Aid Agency – remove representation of children by lawyers, save 33% of the budget in one simple move?

I’m afraid that I don’t.

 

So, quick hotfix

 

  1. HRA damages claims about s20 drift or delay should be issued in the civil courts, as a civil case with the pre-action protocols.
  2. And not done within care proceedings or within care proceeding legal aid certificates.

 

Does this make it harder to get those HRA claims? Absolutely. Does it mean that s20 drift won’t be tackled as rigorously by the Courts as it is at present? Absolutely. Will it reduce the number of proceedings being issued. Hell yes.

 

 

I’m also afraid that from what I have heard about the effectivness of settlement conferences in avoiding final hearings in the pilot authorities, these are INEVITABLY  going to be rolled out, despite reservations that the Association of Lawyers for Children rightly have about them

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2016/07/06/settlement-conferences/

 

The biggest resource cost in care proceedings is the final hearing – that takes up Court time, Judge time, counsel fees, expert attendance fees.  So a scheme which in the pilots has changed the proportion of cases that settle before final hearing from about 30% to 90% is going to be massively attractive to the MOJ and the Legal Aid Agency.  Particularly in this climate. I can’t see how they won’t be rolled out nationally if the pilot when it reports even says that the proportion of cases that settle went from 30% to 50%.

 

Here is another idea of mine which would save money at final hearings but without being as queasy as the Settlement Conferences scheme.

 

At an IRH, if the parents are presenting as a couple and there are no issues which REQUIRE them to be separately represented by counsel at the final hearing, there will be a rebuttable presumption that they would have one counsel.  That will be a decision for the Judge to decide at IRH, having heard representations. Obviously if it is a case with allegations of domestic violence or coercive control, it won’t be appropriate for one counsel to represent the other, likewise if there is a disputed injury or sexual allegation where one party might have to implicate the other or decide on separation.  But I have lost count of the number of final hearings I’ve done where the Legal Aid Agency and hence the taxpayer, is paying for counsel to represent the mother and counsel to represent the father, and you could not slip a cigarette paper between their case and their submissions.  It adds to time, it adds to cost, and with a looming 40% budget overspend, it is a luxury we can’t afford.

To be honest, this is something which ought to be addressed at IRH’s anyway, but I’ve never heard parents counsel asked the question at any IRH – what is the need for parents to be separately represented here?

[In those cases where there’s an answer to that, then of course they should be separately represented, but too often it is just done without any thought or consideration, other than mum has her own team and dad has his own team.  It’s not going to save 40% of the budget, but it would be a start, and much better than robbing the child of a voice in the proceedings]

 

I think that the President places a lot of stock in shorter documents solving some of the problems of time and cost per case.  In my experience, shorter documents give less space for setting out the facts and the arguments clearly, and result in greater disputes.  To draw up a threshold which provides the factual allegations, the specific examples for which findings are sought AND contains the Re A analysis, is a constant battle to get into 2 pages, and LA’s are ALWAYS drawing them up with one hand tied behind their back. Something has to give, and if it is the choice between two lines where I can put in a significant allegation or dropping that allegation for a Re A analysis, I’ll drop the Re A every time. Sorry, but that’s how it is.   I think it was right to stop thresholds being so sprawling, but when Re A came in, the limit should have been made to 3 pages – 5 in exceptional cases.    (Try doing an FII threshold in 2 pages….)

Shorter social work statements – well yes, we’d all like to get rid of the waffle and duplication and jargon (not sure that the standard SWET model does absolutely anything in that regard) and a large chunk of the documents are now spent on the Re B-S analysis, so we can’t get rid of that.   Shorter statements, in space restrictions might also lead to less balance – if you have to squeeze everything in, isn’t there a tendency to focus on the stuff that helps your case, rather than provide the balanced accounts of the positive things that the parents have done. To write about the truly awful session of contact on 4th February but not make room for some of the positive feedback about other sessions?

 

In my experience, the most common question I hear posed to social workers in the witness box is :-

 

“But why isn’t this in your statement?”

 

So shorter statements might well be a mixed blessing. Less for people to read, but missing some of the facts, context, analysis and rigour that might lead to less need to call live evidence and to have final hearings.

 

I’m all for the President’s suggestion of research – let us perhaps start with a comparison of those authorities who are using SWET and whose Courts are hardline on page restrictions versus those who aren’t.  Does it affect number of proceedings, number of hearings, number of contested final hearings, time taken to conclude cases…

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Sick note

I had to research this issue for a real case last week, and because it was quirky and hard to winkle out, I thought I’d share it.

It does happen from time to time that a party to Court proceedings is too ill to participate in a key hearing, perhaps even the final hearing, and seeks an adjournment. Sometimes they really are ill, sometimes they are pulling a Ferris Bueller.

 

 

“You fake a stomach cramp, and when you’re bent over moaning and wailing, you lick your palms. It’s a little childish and stupid, but so is the Family Court….”

 

What is needed is a doctor’s note. No doctor’s note, no adjournment. But what if there is a doctor’s note? How is the Court supposed to decide whether to grant the adjournment or not.

 

Oddly, I couldn’t find any reported family law cases saying how bad the illness has to be, or what test the Court has to apply. It turned out the relevant case law was a Probate case, and not a very old one either. Levy v Ellis-Carr and others 2012

 

We’ll come back to it. I’d like to share with you my story of the worst ever application for an adjournment I had to make.  It was a private law case, my client was going down like the Hindenberg, and it was the final hearing. Two days before, my client rings me and says that he can’t come to the final hearing, it needs to be put off. For a few months. I explain that I’ll need a doctor’s note, and he gives me a sigh which is intended to convey to me how utterly unreasonable I am being.

I receive the doctor’s letter minutes before I need to set off to Court, so I slap it on the photocopier, do 3 copies and start walking down to Court with my bundle.

The first paragraph of the letter reads like this, in type

 

I saw Mr J on 12th March 2009. He had a headache.”

[I’m thinking that this probably doesn’t cut it, but wait. In handwriting, familiar handwriting, the same handwriting as I’ve got in my bundle on the various threatening letters sent by my client to the children’s mother, there’s an annotation”]

“and a broken leg”

 

Next paragraph, in type :-  I recommended aspirin for his headache.

Handwriting floating above the sentence, as though the doctor had forgotten this and added it afterwards, silly doctor.

Handwriting “And I put his leg in plaster

Type :- As the headache was very minor, he would be perfectly able to attend Court.

Handwriting “But not with his broken leg, which means that he can’t come”

 

I had to hand this in to the other side, who had the decency to do all of their laughter in another room, and then later to the Judge.

I was not successful in my application. My client rang later that day to ask if his contact for the weekend was still on. He lived a four hour drive from the children.

“But Mr J, ” I said, “How will you drive all that way with your broken leg?”

“Oh that,” he said, “It’s got better.”

 

Anyway, here’s the authority.

 

Levy v Ellis-Carr and Others 2012

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/63.html

 

In this case, the appellant wanted an adjournment of a hearing, and produced a doctor’s letter

 

 

  • First, there is a letter from a Doctor dated 24 May 2011 (the date of the hearing before Registrar Derrett) which says :

 

“The above named saw me today very distressed and upset with multiple problems. My diagnosis is that he is suffering from anxiety depression. And he is prescribed medication for it. If his problem persist or get worse I will refer him to a Consultant Psychiatrist.”

The Court refused the adjournment, and he appealed it.

The High Court, in the form of Norris J, dealt with this aspect of the appeal like this.

  • 32. I will deal first with the ground of appeal which asserts that the Registrar erred in law in failing to grant an adjournment. This ground is directly related to the Appellant’s failure to attend the trial. The decision whether to grant or to refuse an adjournment is a case management decision. It is to be exercised having regard to the “overriding objective” in CPR 1. Showing that the exercise of discretion was outside the generous ambit within which there is reasonable room for disagreement is not an easy task: see Khudados v Hayden [2007] EWCA Civ 1316. In Fitzroy Robinson v Mentmore Towers [2009] EWHC 3870 (TCC) Coulson J at paragraph [8] set out some of the factors that might be relevant to an 11th hour application to adjourn a trial. But each case must turn on its own facts (and in particular upon how late the application is made).
  • Registrars, Masters and district judges are daily faced with cases coming on for hearing in which one party either writes to the court asking for an adjournment and then (without waiting for a reply) does not attend the hearing, or writes to the court simply to state that they will not be attending. Not infrequently “medical” grounds are advanced, often connected with the stress of litigation. Parties who think that they thereby compel the Court not to proceed with the hearing or that their non-attendance somehow strengthens the application for an adjournment are deeply mistaken. The decision whether or not to adjourn remains one for the judge. The decision must of course be a principled one. The judge will want to have in mind CPR1 and (to the degree appropriate) any relevant judicial guidance (such as that of Coulson J Fitzroy or Neuberger J in Fox v Graham (“Times” 3 Aug 2001 and Lexis). But the party who fails to attend either in person or through a representative to assist the judge in making that principled decision cannot complain too loudly if, in the exercise of the discretion, some factor might have been given greater weight. For my own part, bearing in mind the material upon which and the circumstances in which decisions about adjournments fall to be made (and in particular because the decision must be reached quickly lest it occupy the time listed for the hearing of the substantive matter and thereby in practice give a party relief to which he is not justly entitled) I do not think an appeal court should be overcritical of the language in which the decision about an adjournment has been expressed by a conscientious judge. An experienced judge may not always articulate all of the factors which have borne upon the decision. That is not an encouragement to laxity: it is intended as a recognition of the realities of busy lists.
  • In the instant case the Appellant has to demonstrate that on the material then before her the Registrar exercised her discretion wrongly as a matter of law, and he has also to demonstrate that in fact he had a good reason not to attend the trial.
  • In my judgment there were ample grounds upon which the Registrar could properly refuse the adjournment (whether she expressly referred to them or not). There was a history of making applications for adjournments at each stage. The hearing before her was itself a re-listed hearing. There was evident non-cooperation in preparing for the trial. Even on the Appellant’s own case he had made his application for an adjournment at the last possible moment. He adduced no medical evidence. His solicitor deliberately withdrew instructions from Counsel and told Counsel not to attend the hearing. The solicitor on the record made a conscious decision not to attend the hearing. The application was already a year old (partly because the Appellant had sought adjournments to put in evidence and had then not done so) and related to a bankruptcy that had commenced in 1994. The Court could if the hearing proceeded take into account such evidence as he had adduced (even if it did not have the benefit of the criticisms he wanted to make of the trustee’s case all the benefit of any argument he wanted to advance in support of his own). The Appellant would always have available the opportunity afforded by CPR 39.3.
  • Can the Appellant demonstrate on this appeal that he had good reason not to attend the hearing (as he would have to do under CPR 39.5)? In my judgment he cannot. The Appellant was evidently able to think about the case on 24 May 2011 (because he went to a doctor and asked for a letter that he could use in the case, plainly to be deployed in the event that an adjournment was not granted): if he could do that then he could come to Court, as his wife did. He has made no application to adduce in evidence that letter (and so has not placed before the court any of the factual material necessary to demonstrate that a medical report could not with reasonable diligence have been obtained before the hearing before the Registrar). But I will consider that additional evidence. In my judgment it falls far short of the medical evidence required to demonstrate that the party is unable to attend a hearing and participate in the trial. Such evidence should identify the medical attendant and give details of his familiarity with the party’s medical condition (detailing all recent consultations), should identify with particularity what the patient’s medical condition is and the features of that condition which (in the medical attendant’s opinion) prevent participation in the trial process, should provide a reasoned prognosis and should give the court some confidence that what is being expressed is an independent opinion after a proper examination. It is being tendered as expert evidence. The court can then consider what weight to attach to that opinion, and what arrangements might be made (short of an adjournment) to accommodate a party’s difficulties. No judge is bound to accept expert evidence: even a proper medical report falls to be considered simply as part of the material as a whole (including the previous conduct of the case). The letter on which the Appellant relies is wholly inadequate.
  • The Appellant complains that the failure to grant the adjournment is a breach of his human rights. The complaint is misconceived. The Appellant’s right to a fair trial means that he must have a reasonable opportunity to put his case. He had that right on 9 February 2011 (but asked the Court to postpone it). He was urged to exercise that right by the trustee’s solicitors on 23rd May 2011: but he and his legal representatives chose not to avail themselves of it.
  • This ground of appeal fails.

 

The medical evidence which the person seeking an adjournment relies upon is to be treated as a piece of expert evidence. The Court does not HAVE to accept its conclusions. It has to contain with particularity (details) what the medical condition is, why that prevents participation in the court process, provide a future prognosis, and set out that the author of the report (a) has examined the person (b) has made the diagnosis of the medical condition and on what basis and (c) is qualified to do so.

 

If the medical evidence comes up to those standards, the Court will then consider the adjournment based on the over-riding objectives set out in the Family Procedure Rules

 

1.1.—(1) These rules are a new procedural code with the overriding objective of enabling the court to deal with cases justly, having regard to any welfare issues involved.

(2) Dealing with a case justly includes, so far as is practicable—

(a)ensuring that it is dealt with expeditiously and fairly;

(b)dealing with the case in ways which are proportionate to the nature, importance and complexity of the issues;

(c)ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing;

(d)saving expense; and

(e)allotting to it an appropriate share of the court’s resources, while taking into account the need to allot resources to other cases.

 

Obviously with a genuine medical complaint, there’s a tension between resolving the case ‘expeditiously’ and resolving it ‘fairly’ and it will be for the Judge to decide on which side of the scales the particular application for an adjournment falls.

 

In Care proceedings, an application for adjournment that would take the case beyond 26 weeks has the additional hurdle of the revised section 31 following the Children and Families Act 2014 which set the duration of care proceedings as 26 weeks, and that a party seeking to extend the proceedings beyond that has to show that it is NECESSARY

 

5)A court in which an application under this Part is proceeding may extend the period that is for the time being allowed under subsection (1)(a)(ii) in the case of the application, but may do so only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly.

(6)When deciding whether to grant an extension under subsection (5), a court must in particular have regard to—

(a)the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the welfare of the child to whom the application relates, and

(b)the impact which any ensuing timetable revision would have on the duration and conduct of the proceedings;

Foster to adopt – two small but significant issues

 

As Foster to Adopt placements  (where a child is placed with foster carers who are also approved as adopters and might go on to adopt the child if the Court decides to make a Placement Order) become more prevalent, both as a result of the Children and Families Act 2014 and the political drive to have more such placements, this particular case resolves two issues that might be significant in the future.

 

Or at least, flags up what I’d consider to be the correct answer in law and we await a decision from the High Court or Court of Appeal in the future to definitively confirm it, as this is a case determined by a Circuit Judge and thus not binding on future cases.

 

[It is very well reasoned though, and I’d be rather surprised if a higher Court were to disagree. ]

 

Re B (A child :adoption) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B182.html

 

Question 1 – when is the child “placed” for adoption?

 

There are three possible answers generally – when the Match is made (i.e  an Adoption Panel agrees that little Richard Starkey can be adopted by Mr and Mrs Ringo), or, when Richard first meets Mr and Mrs Ringo, or when the child moves into the home of prospective adopters when a Placement Order has been made. The Courts spent quite some time wrangling about that, finally deciding in Coventry City Council v O (Adoption) [2011] 2 FLR 936  that “placed for adoption” began once Richard begins to live with Mr and Mrs Ringo  (in a practical sense, on the first night that he stays with them with no plan for him to be collected by the Local Authority from then on)

 

But with Foster to Adopt children, the move into the home can come much earlier than the Placement Order.  The child is already living with the prospective adopters.  Why is this relevant? Well, because “placement” with prospective adopters can limit the parents, who cannot for example make an application to revoke a Placement Order once the child is “placed” with prospective adopters, and have to wait until an Adoption Order application is made by the prospective adopters.

 

The Judge here, His Honour Judge Booth, confirmed that the child is not “placed with adopters” until the child is in a position to be adopted (a Placement Order made) and the match is approved AND the child is living with the adopters. So in a Foster to Adopt placement, the “placed with adopters” begins as soon as the Adoption Panel and Agency Decision Maker have approved that Mr and Mrs Ringo are to be the adoptive carers of Richard.

 

  1. The July 2014 statutory guidance for Early Permanence emphasises that the status of Section 22C(9B(c) placements changes when the court has made a placement order and the ADM has approved the adoptive placement:

    “Section 22C(9B)(c) placements are foster placements: the carers must be approved foster carers as well as approved prospective adopters before the child can be placed with them. The carers are entitled to the fostering allowances that the fostering provider would normally pay. When the local authority receives a placement order or parental consent and the ADM has approved the adoptive placement, the section 22C(9B)(c) placement will become an adoptive placement. At that point the carers will become eligible for adoption pay and leave and the fostering allowance ceases”.

  2. The local authority acting in its role as an adoption agency re-approved Mr and Mrs X as Lancashire County Council adopters on 6th May 2015 and they were linked as B’s prospective adopters at an Adoption Panel on 13th May 2015. The ADM approved the decision of the panel on 22nd May 2015. It was on this date, when the third and final stage identified by Thorpe LJ in Re S was accomplished and therefore B was placed for adoption. To employ Lord Wilson’s language in Coventry v O, 22nd May 2015 was the date when the adoption agency formally allowed B “to continue to live with the applicants in their fresh capacity as prospective adopters”.
  3. From the time the placement order was made on 31st March 2015 until B was placed for adoption with Mr and Mrs X there was an opportunity for his parents or anybody else to apply for leave to seek revocation of the placement order. That opportunity ended when B was placed for adoption by the decision of the ADM on 22nd May 2015. Such is the effect of section 24 (5)(b) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The closure of that opportunity is by operation of law rather than any physical movement of the child.

 

Thus, the window of opportunity for a parent to apply to revoke the Placement Order is limited to the period between the making of the Placement Order and the Agency Decision Maker (ADM) approving the match. In this case, that was between 31st March and 22nd May. About eight weeks. Bearing in mind that the test for granting leave to apply to revoke a Placement Order is that the parent must show a “change in circumstances” since the Placement Order was made, that’s not much time to bring about such a change.

 

Question 2  – for the purposes of making an application under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, when does the child start to “have his home” with the prospective adopters?

 

This is significant because the prospective adopters can’t make their application until the child has been in their home for ten weeks. Does that ten weeks start from the time that the child was “placed” as above? Or from when the child was actually physically living with them?  If the latter, then Foster to Adopt carers can technically make their application almost immediately after the match if they so desire.

 

The Judge  ruled that it is the latter. That ten week period can start to run from the moment that Richard begins to live with Mr and Mrs Ringo, and doesn’t have to wait until he is “placed” there.  So Foster to Adopt carers can lodge their adoption application seconds after the ADM approves the match and “places” the child, if they so wish.

 

  1. The adoption application
  2. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 sets out a number of adoption gateway requirements in s42 before an adoption order can be made. The relevant section for the purposes of Mr and Mrs X’s application is s.42(2) which states:

    “If —

    (a) the child was placed for adoption with the applicant or applicants by an adoption agency or in pursuance of an order of the High Court, or

    (b) the applicant is a parent of the child

    the condition is that the child must have had his home with the applicant or, in the case of an application by a couple, with one or both of them at all times during the period of ten weeks preceding the application.”

  3. B was ‘placed’ for the purposes of adoption on 22nd May 2015. The wording of the statute appears to deliberately avoid the terminology of a child being ‘placed’ when referring to the period of time that a child is required to live with the applicants prior to an application for an adoption order. Instead, the statute requires that the child “must have had his home” with the applicant(s) for 10 weeks preceding the application.
  4. There is no definition of ‘home’ in the Children Act 1989 or the Adoption and Children Act 2002, however it is clear from the observations of Sheldon J in Re Y (Minors) (Adoption: Jurisdiction) [1985] Fam 136, [1986] 1 FLR 152 at 140 and 157 that it has been considered to be a concept incapable of precise definition and that definition should not be attempted beyond the principal features a home should be expected to embody which, by reference to the OED definition, includes a “dwelling-place, house, abode; fixed residence of a family or household”. The Court in that case considered that the issue of whether something amounted to a home “must be a question of fact in any particular case”.
  5. This was endorsed more recently in the case of ECC v M and Others [2008] EWHC 332 (Fam) where Black J said at para [67]

    “I am entirely in agreement with Sheldon J that it is a question of fact in any particular case whether or not a home has been established here within the meaning of the 2002 Act”.

  6. My conclusion is that the time spent by B with the Mr and Mrs X amounts to him having had his home with them for the duration of the period he has lived with them. He has resided there continuously since 2nd December 2014 and they undertake all of his caring tasks. I am told that they have attached to him as their potential adoptive son and he has been treated as such within the immediate and wider family and that B identifies them as his primary attachment figures. They have acted as his parents since he was a day old and he has had his home with them since that date.
  7. There is no restriction in either statute or case law to the effect that the child cannot have their home with the Applicant prior to a placement order or, indeed, prior to his being ‘placed’ with the applicants for the purposes of adoption. For these purposes the clock began ticking in that respect from the moment B was physically placed with them on 2nd December 2014.
  8. This interpretation is consistent with the spirit of the Act and what it was intended to achieve in relation to adoptive placements prior to adoption orders being applied for. The purpose of the requirements set out in s.42 has been the subject of judicial consideration in Re A (Adoption: Removal) [2009] EWCA Civ 41, [2009] 2 FLR 597 when Moore-Bick LJ said at para 106:

    “The section … is concerned to ensure that the child has spent sufficient time living with the applicant in a home environment to enable the Court to be satisfied they are sufficiently well-matched for the adoption to be likely to be successful”.

  9. This was endorsed by Theis J in Re X (Adoption Application: Gateway Requirements) [2014] 1 FLR 1281 at para [33].
  10. The question of where a child has had his home is a question of fact independent from his legal status within that home.

 

The very purpose of Foster to Adopt is to ensure that in cases where the Court approve adoption as the plan that there are shorter delays in the adoption order being made, and less moves for the child, so it does make sense that such carers are allowed to take the ten weeks as being the time that the child has been in their care, rather than making them wait for ten weeks after the match is formally approved.

 

Of course from the other side of the coin, and remembering that a parent needs to show that there has been a Change of Circumstances since the Placement Order was made if they are going to get leave to oppose the adoption order application, realising that there might be a very short window – more likely weeks than months between the Placement Order and adoption order application might make it virtually impossible to effect such change.

Concurrent affairs

 

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

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/983.html

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:-

 

  1. The grounds of appeal and the parties’ submissions
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  4. By way of elaboration, a number of points were made which it is convenient to take together.
  5. 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.
  6. 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, [2012] 2 FLR 332, referred to below).
  7. 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.
  8. 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) [2015] 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.
  9. 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)

 

  1. 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?
  2. 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) [2015] 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.
  3. Furthermore, and relying upon Singh v Entry Clearance Officer, New Delhi [2004] EWCA Civ 1075, [2005] QB 608, [2005] 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:-

 

  1. 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.
  2. In Re G (Minors) (Interim Care Order) [1993] 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.”

  3. Some fifteen years later, this court said much the same thing again. In Re A; Coventry County Council v CC and A [2007] EWCA Civ 1383, [2008] 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) [2006] 1 FLR 483.”

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

  6. Referring to Re R (Care: Plan for Adoption: Best Interests) [2006] 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?

 

  1. 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) [2013] UKSC 33, [2013] 1 WLR 1911, [2013] 2 FLR 1075, In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, [2014] 1 FLR 1035, M v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and others [2014] EWCA Civ 1479, [2015] 1 WLR 2441 and In re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach) [2014] EWCA Civ 1625, [2015] 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. To the extent I have indicated, I therefore agree with the thrust of Mr Tyler’s submissions.
  5. 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.

  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. I turn to the local authority’s challenge to the order giving Mr and Mrs X leave to apply for an adoption order.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.”

  14. 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.
  15. 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 :-

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The Adoption statistics

The Government have published their statistics (there’s a time delay, so these are the stats up to Autumn 2014)

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/436613/ALB_Business_Intelligence_Quarter_3_2014_to_2015.pdf

 

I suspect that the headline one  (which prompted all of those press releases in late April) is going to be this:-

 

 

Quarterly data suggests that the number of new decisions has continued to fall from 1,830 in quarter 2 2013-14 to 910 in quarter 3 2014-15, a decrease of 50%. The number of new placement orders have also continued to fall from 1,550 in quarter 2 2013-14 to 740 in quarter 3 2014-15, a decrease of 52%.

 

 

What they don’t have, is a measure of how many cases LA’s put before an Agency Decision Maker, so we can’t tell whether

 

  • Social workers were asking ADM’s for adoption approval less often, so less cases were approved
  • ADM’s were refusing a higher proportion of requests than previously, so less cases were approved
  • A combination of those factors  (which if so, would lead to even more of a drop – if social workers were only giving their ‘best’ cases for adoption to the ADM, but they were being knocked back, then you’d expect less and less cases to go to the ADM)

 

[And of course, what underpins all of that is whether social workers / ADMs were being overly cautious about the case law and not asking for adoption in cases where the Court would actually have made Placement Orders, or whether they were being realistic and knowing that if they asked for adoption they wouldn’t be capable of satisfying their Court that the tests were met]

 

 

What really fits is the increase stats on Special Guardianship Orders  – I haven’t seen the raw data, but the BBC claim this has tripled since 2012 (BS cough cough)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32840224

 

When you look at the graph showing Agency Decision Maker decisions that adoption should be the plan for the child over time, you can see the numbers drop off a cliff at the time of the Supreme Court decision in Re B (nothing else will do).

 

You can argue (and it is a legitimate argument, where Re B and Re B-S were a new test, or a nudge in the ribs to apply the existing tests with proper rigour, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing) but you can’t really argue as the current official narrative has it, that this isn’t even a thing. The graphs make it really obvious.

The quarter BEFORE Re B-S, 1830 decisions by ADMs that adoption was the right plan for the child. Re B-S hit in September 2013, so it would be the third quarter of 2013 when ADM’s would have known about it. Those numbers, 1290.  It is the sharpest drop of the entire graph.  It has continued to slope downwards since then, but the bit in the graph that looks like abseiling down the Eiger is Re B-S. You absolutely can’t dispute it.

The Myth-Buster document was published in December 2014, so we can’t see from the stats and graph whether that has led to a reversal of the pattern in the graph. We’ll see that in about six months, I suppose. Similarly, whether the Court of Appeal’s softening of position on “nothing else will do” translates into an increase in ADM decisions that adoption is the plan.

 

[Cynically, I doubt it. I’m well aware that I am not a normal human being in my interest in case law, and I haven’t always had it. For about my first five years in child protection law, you could get by on three cases  Re G (interim care is a deep freeze affording no tactical advantage), H and R  (the nature of the allegation doesn’t increase the standard of proof) and whatever at the time was the law on residential assessments.  Re B and Re B-S, with their hard-hitting message and backed by a soundbite ‘nothing else will do’ resonate with people much more than the inching back, case specific, deeply nuanced and incremental Court of Appeal cases since that time.  Even the Re R case https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/18/re-r-is-b-s-dead/  that was intended to slay the Re B-S myths is so nuanced that it takes nine or ten reads to have a grasp of what it is actually saying, and almost the day after you’ve done that, you couldn’t actually put it into a meaningful summary sentence]

 

 

[I argued before HERE  https://suesspiciousminds.com/2015/05/15/adoption-rates-in-freefall/  that the Press narrative that the case law will mean ‘children suffering in unsuitable and unsafe homes’ is an emotive over-simplification. I’d stand by that. At the moment, the case law on adoption has been going through its most radical changes in a generation, and it is certainly less predictable than it has ever been to decide what sort of case will result in a Placement Order and what won’t.  We are in a period of re-balancing. I don’t know yet whether these figures show that we have found the right level of those cases where adoption IS the right plan to put before the Court, whether there are even more drops to come, or whether there’s an over-reaction to it.   I have a suspicion, given that the entire history of child protection and family justice is about lurches from child rescue to family preservation and vice versa, and an eventual settling down at one particular side of the scale but hopefully not at the absolute far end of the scale…]

 

Given the huge push to recruit adopters – all the Government policies about making it easier, less time-consuming, less intrusive, more appealing , this statistic may get less attention but must be concerning

 

Registrations to become an adopter have decreased by 24% from 1,340 in quarter 2 2014-15 to 1,020 in quarter 3 2014-15. The number of adopter families approved for adoption has decreased by 3% from 1,240 in quarter 2 2014-15 to 1,200 in quarter 3 2014-15.

 

 

We will wait to see how the Court decisions that moved children from prospective adopters to the birth family (which is a completely new phenomenon, having not occurred at all prior to December 2014) has on adoption recruitment and retention.

 

 

The backlog (which had stood at 1 approved adopter for every 3 children approved for adoption) has been nearly cleared.

 

Our most recent estimate for the “adopter gap” suggests that the gap has closed, and we now have more adopters than children waiting. However, there are still 2,600 children with a placement order not yet matched and the relevance of this measure assumes that matching is working effectively.

 

 

The number of adoption ORDERS made is, they claim the highest since recording began

 

3,740 children adopted in quarters 1 to 3 2014-15

2013-14 saw the highest number of adoptions from care since the current data collection began in 1992, with 5,050 children adopted from care.

 

 

When I have looked at Court stats on adoption http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-316163   5050 looks like a pretty average year, with there having been figures nearly 50 per cent higher in the earlier 1990s.   (Now, it may be that the measure that is being used here is “Adoption of children who are in care” and that the Office of National Statistics figure bundles that in with ‘step-parent adoptions’,  so it is not a like-for-like comparison)

 

 

 

Finally, this statistic initially looks positive (how long does it take between a child coming into care and a child being placed for adoption  – you’d WANT that number to go down, since whether you want more or less children being adopted, most of us could agree that we wouldn’t want children to wait so long for a family to be found)

 

In 2013-14, the average number of days between entering care and placement was 594 days, an improvement from 656 days in 2012-13. Latest quarterly data suggests there has been a further improvement to 533 days. At 216 days, the average number of days between placement order and match in 2013-14 was a slight improvement on 2012-13. However, the latest quarterly data suggests that this has increased to 241 during quarter 3 2014-15.

 

 

The closer inspection is this :-

 

That since the 2012 figures, there has been legislation and huge resources expended on bringing care proceedings down from what was an average of 55 weeks to a target of 26 weeks.  That OUGHT to have had far more of an impact than 60 days being shaved off the time between entering care and a family being found.  It should be something more like a saving of 200 days. As the time from Placement Order to placement had gone slightly down (but was now going back up), that SUGGESTS that IF there is a saving of 30 weeks from start of care proceedings to Placement Order, but it results in only a time saving of 8 ½ weeks,  that there’s about 20 weeks unaccounted for.

 

Does that mean that :-

 

  • Whilst average time of care proceedings has gone down, it hasn’t gone down as MUCH for cases where adoption is the plan?  (That makes sense, as those are the ones that are most contentious and where all avenues tend to be exhausted?)
  • There’s been an increase in the time that children who go on to be adopted are spending in care PRIOR to care proceedings?  That “front-loading” element.

 

 

I don’t know how or if statistics on those issues are being kept.  It must be problematic that if we are compressing the time that care proceedings take, with all that involves, but barely reducing the time that a child waits between coming into care and a new family being found, have we really improved anything for the child?   (Note particularly that with the latest quarterly data, HALF the time that has been cut appears to have been lost by an increase in the family finding process.  216 days of family finding and matching post Placement Order equates to 30 weeks)

 

 

The notional 200 day saving from faster care proceedings isn’t turning into a real saving, and that feels counter-intuitive. What we’ve been told for years is that if decisions about children are made by the Courts quicker, the children will be easier to place  – they will be younger and have less issues (and thus, you’d assume, faster to place).

Discharge of care order (IRO takes a kicking)

 

One of my commentators asked me this week whether there were many authorities on discharge of Care Orders. I can’t claim any credit for the fact that a case has now turned up.

This is a case decided by a Circuit Judge, so it is not binding authority, but it throws up some interesting issues.  Particularly for, and about, Independent Reviewing Officers.  The judgment is critical of the Local Authority (but more about the systems than the individual worker concerned, though she is named)

 

Re X (Discharge of Care Order) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B217.html

 

This was the mother’s application to discharge the care order on her son X, who is now 14. That order was made in 2001. Very peculiarly, X was at home with his mother under a Care Order until 2010 (and the removal appeared to have happened following mother’s application to discharge the Care Order then).  X then came into foster care and has been there since then.

 

The mother had care proceedings on two younger siblings of X, concluding with no order in 2012. So those children live with her, there are no statutory orders and they are not open cases to social workers.

In the period since the court made its orders of June and December 2012, D’s two youngest daughters have remained in her care. There has been no statutory involvement from Social Services; it is therefore reasonable for the court to assume that the Local Authority has no concerns about the care provided to them. D, very sadly, has been involved on the periphery of proceedings relating to a number of her grandchildren, at least two of whom have been permanently removed. Her losses have continued, therefore, to be many and great.

 

X has autism, so has significant needs of his own.

 

I’ll do the law Geek bit first.

 

Geek point 1 – scrutiny of care plan

When the Children and Families Act 2014 was a twinkle in the drafter’s eye, there was much talk about changing the Court’s relationship with care plans, reducing the scrutiny of them down to the essential matters – no doubt with the hope that the time spent in Court proceedings micro-managing every aspect of the care plan and litigating about every tiny aspect could be cut out and that would speed things up. The Act duly did include a clause to the effect that the Court was only REQUIRED to look at

section 31 (3B) Children Act 1989

…such of the plans provisions setting out the long-term plan for the upbringing of the child concerned as provide for any of the following

(a)the child to live with any parent of the child’s or with any other member of, or any friend of, the child’s family;

(b)adoption;

(c)long-term care not within paragraph (a) or (b).

 

i.e just a flat-out ‘where is the child going to live under this plan’.

 

I haven’t seen that really happen, and also I haven’t seen it appear in any law reports. Until this one

 

Section 31(3)(A) further makes clear that the court must limit its consideration of the prescribed elements of the care plan as to placement, and as the commentary in the Red Book suggests that must necessarily be limited to the form of placement, not the detail of it. I am, however, nonetheless satisfied that, in this case, the court can and must look at the implementation of the plan and its effect on the child in order to complete the welfare evaluation.

 

Which is a really elegant way of saying “The Act says that I’m not REQUIRED to look at the detail of the plan, but to decide the case fairly, I still need to”

 

Geek point 2 – Court keeping hold of the case to hold the LA to account

 

The Guardian in this case told the Court that she did not support the mother’s application to discharge the Care Order, but wanted the Court to adjourn the application, because the LA had made such a mess of things there was little confidence that if left to their own devices without Court scrutiny they would fix things.

It is submitted on the guardian’s behalf that the Local Authority has so failed in its duty as corporate parent to implement the final care plan approved by the court that it should be held to account and its future planning overseen by the court. The guardian urges the court to require the Local Authority to produce an updated plan that is coherent, choate and capable of implementation. The guardian supports the discharge of the Section 34(4) contact order. She does not support the making of a defined contact order in substitution, but invites the court to direct the Local Authority to confirm its commitment to contact at the level of six times a year in its revised plan

 

The Local Authority argued that the Court had no jurisdiction to do that. And if they didn’t use the words ‘smacks of starred care plan’ in their argument, I’d be highly surprised.

The Court accepted that there was no jurisdiction to adjourn the proceedings just to monitor the LA. But did decide that there were some material bits of evidence that were needed before mother’s application could be properly determined.  (so a half-way house). The Judge also ordered, that that evidence should be obtained through an independent social work assessment.

 

Geek point 3 – the legal approach to a discharge of care order

 

The Judge points out that the burden is on the applicant (i.e mother) to show that the order should be discharged

It is for Mother to satisfy the court that there has been a material change of circumstances and X’s welfare requires discharge of the care order.

But then goes on to say that in considering article 8, the Court would have to consider whether it was necessary for the Care Order to remain and to only continue the order if it was proportionate.

 

The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate

 

Those two things involve some degree of conflict – it seems that the burden is on mother to show that the Care Order should be discharged and simultaneously on the LA to show that it is proportionate for it to continue.

I’ve never seen that argument advanced. It seems in keeping with the spirit of Re B-S (where even if the Court has approved the plan of adoption by making a Placement Order, when the Court is considering making an adoption order, it still has consider whether the plan already approved is necessary and proportionate). But it jibes with a fundamental principle of English law that the burden falls upon the applicant.

I don’t want to say that the Judge is wrong here, and I’m not even sure that she is. I think it is a natural consequence of the need to apply article 8 to any decision made by the Court in family proceedings that the Court need to be satisfied that the interference (even continued interference) by the State in private and family life is proportionate.  I think that she has spotted something clever that I had overlooked.  It made my temples throb a bit to think about it.  I wonder if we will see this revisited.

 

Judicial criticism – LAC reviews

There were major issues in this case. One was that despite the child having been in care since 2010/2011 with a plan of long-term fostering, he was still waiting for a placement. Another was that the therapy and work that he obviously needed still hadn’t materialised.  (And if you are thinking “I bet they made a referral to CAMHS and that was the end of it”, then you are both a hard-bitten cynic and right. )

There was also the issue of contact, particularly contact with his siblings.  And the issue that the LA had basically stopped working with the mother altogether.

She is described as being ‘challenging and forthright’  (which is a bit like those obituaries you see of famous people that say ‘fun loving and gregarious’ when they mean ‘an alcoholic who was exhausting to be around’ or ‘was not one to suffer fools gladly’ to mean ‘was obnoxious and vile to everyone who worked with him’. )

 

 

But let’s quickly look at how little involvement the LA were having with this mother (who lets not forget was SHARING PR for this 14 year old)

It is unusual to come across a case where a mother who continues to share parental responsibility is excluded from the LAC reviews, is not provided with the name of the social worker working directly with the child, is not provided with information about the child’s school, receives no updates of his medical condition and no updates of his work with the therapeutic services. As far as I understand it, she was not even provided with redacted copies of the school reports.

 

Yes, you read that correctly. The LA weren’t even telling the mother the name of the social worker.

The bigger issue, however, with all of these things was, where was the Independent Reviewing Officer in all of this?

I mentioned ‘starred care plans’ earlier – if you are not one of my more breathtakingly beautiful and vivacious readers [translation :- older]  you may not know about starred care plans.  They were a short-lived invention of the Court of Appeal, to deal with the concern that where the Court approves a care plan and makes a Care Order, the LA then go off and run their Care Order and there’s no mechanism to get the case back before the Court to say “hey, they aren’t doing what they promised”.  The House of Lords squashed that mechanism but did say that there ought to be some form of mechanism created by Parliament to address the issue. As a result, Independent Reviewing Officers were created by Parliament – to scrutinise performance of a care plan and also giving them the ability to refer any breach to CAFCASS who could in turn apply to Court.   (Last time I checked, nationally there had been 8 referrrals and 0 court applications, so that’s working well)

 

29. The LAC reviews, whilst being required to consider the plan for permanence, appear to play lip service to the need to achieve this. There is no record of reasoned debate and discussion about the child’s need for permanence or how the plan for permanence might be reviewed and achieved. It is fortuitous that X has been able to remain where he is to date. It may be that he will remain there until he achieves independence. Nonetheless it is regrettable that the Local Authority failed to rigorously pursue suitable alternative long term placements for X or demonstrate a determination and clarity of thought in the allocation of their resources. The LAC review minutes do not demonstrate clear and strategic planning in the search for a family even during the period when the Local Authority knew of the equivocation of the current carers.

  1. It is generally acknowledged that the earlier a child achieves permanence the better. It is all the more important for a child like X, whose needs are necessarily heightened by his family history and his autism. I am advised by the IRO that there are significant resource issues for family finding, and finding long-term foster homes for boys is more difficult than for girls. I note the evidence of the independent reviewing officer, Mr Moore, who indicated that 75% of the children he was responsible for with a plan for long-term fostering were still waiting for a permanent placement more than two years after final order.

 

 

 

and later

  1. At this point, it seems to me appropriate to consider the role of the independent reviewing officer in X’s case. Mr Moore has been the independent reviewing officer for X since July 2012. Graham Moore provided a statement and gave evidence to this court. He is an experienced IRO, having been engaged in that role for the last five years. Before that worked as a Cafcass guardian. The IRO accepted that his role meant that he had responsibility for

    i) providing independent oversight of the Local Authority’s care planii) ensuring that the child’s interests were protected through the care planning process;

    iii) establishing the child’s wishes and feelings.

    The IRO accepted the statutory requirements of the LAC review process and that as IRO he was responsible for setting a remedial timescales where necessary.

  2. Whilst parents do not always attend LAC reviews, a system is generally devised to enable meaningful sharing of information following LAC reviews. Mr Moore told me that he had endeavoured to meet D in order to achieve this, but they had not been able to meet. Regrettably, no other practical system was implemented to enable the sharing of the outcome of the LAC reviews.
  3. The IRO accepted that the statutory guidance is clear; that where a matter is outside the control of a Local Authority, but is impacting on the ability of that Authority to meet the child’s needs the IRO should escalate the issue to ensure the child’s welfare needs are met. In this case the Access to Resources Team (family finding) failed to find a permanent placement for X in circumstances where his carers were clearly equivocal about whether they could offer him permanence. Yet the IRO did not escalate the issue. The IRO’s monitoring of the Local Authority search for a permanent placement principally rested on information provided by the social worker. The Access to resources team did not provide regular updates on the outcome of its searches.
  4. The IRO confirmed in evidence that he could not recall another case where a parent had been totally excluded from the LAC process for two and a half years. He accepted that Mother should have been receiving information from the school and had not received it.
  5. Criticism is made of the IRO for failing to robustly manage the Local Authority’s implementation of the care plan or pursue the requirement for permanence. I have no doubt that Mr Moore is an extremely hardworking and dedicated member of the Independent Review Team and I am saddened to reach the conclusion that, in this case, he failed to bring independent, robust and effective overview of the Local Authority management of the X’s plan.
  6. The independent reviewing officer is intended to be a robust mechanism designed to hold a Local Authority to account in the management of a child’s plan. In this case, the opportunities to impose remedial timescales and to escalate inaction and delay were not taken.

 

 

The ISW

As the LA had not been engaging with mother since X came into care, the Judge had no real evidence about a key facet of the case.  The Judge could see that mother was managing her two children at home with no concerns, she could see that X was still a challenging child with many difficulties, but there was nothing to show whether mother would be able to work with professionals in such a way that X could be cared for at home.

 

Most unusually in this case, however, I have no information at all as to Mother’s engagement with the Authority in consequence of the way in which the Local Authority have managed the plan, and no means of determining Mother’s insight and understanding of X’s changing needs.

 

  1. The court is mindful that Article 6 and Article 8 of the Convention Rights are engaged and that when the court considers the application to discharge the care order, it can only continue the care order if satisfied that the Local Authority’s continued intervention is proportionate. I am concerned that in the context of this application there is a lack of relevant information as to the nature, significance and degree of change made by Mother, and that it will be difficult to conduct the courts assessment fairly and appropriately unless that gap is filled.
  2. In my view, it will be necessary for the court, therefore, to receive some further evidence as to Mother’s ability to engage and work constructively with and to understand and demonstrate insight of the needs of X. Furthermore, the court requires an update from the Local Authority as to:

    i) the implementation of their care plan as to placement, therapy and contact and

    ii) the detail of the services the Local Authority would provide or could provide to support X if he were to return to the mother’s care.

    It is noteworthy that the court directed the Local Authority to provide details of the support services it would put in place if X were to return home by its directions of 4 November 2014. To date the Local Authority has failed to provide the details of those services.

    It seems to me that, absent this evidence, the court will be unable to complete the welfare evaluation. Counsel will need to address me as to the form of the additional evidence. I would be minded to direct the instruction of an independent social worker to complete a piece of work with D within four to six weeks. I am conscious that delay is inimical to X’s welfare and that this court needs to make a determination of the application for discharge as soon as is practicable.

  3. I consider that such an assessment will be necessary to enable the court to complete the welfare evaluation. I am conscious that no Part 25 application was issued, but it is clear to me, having heard the evidence of the mother, of the Local Authority, of the IRO, and of the guardian, that a gap remains.

 

Last minute evidence

 

Just as the parties were about to go into Court on this one, bearing in mind that a major issue was whether X could be found a permanent foster home (and his current carers having been saying that they wanted to foster three children, but if they offered a permanent home for X they could only look after him alone, because of his needs), news came that X’s current carers were willing to offer him a permanent home.

  1. In evidence on Monday, Ms Allen said she had just received confirmation from the team charged with family finding for X, that the carers had now made a firm decision to offer a permanent home to X. I was further told that the Local Authority have made a firm commitment to put resources in place to enable X to remain with his carers permanently as the sole child in their care.
  2. This change in the Local Authority’s case caused some consternation in the mother’s legal team. There had been insufficient time to share this change with the mother or with the children’s guardian before coming into court. I quite appreciate how difficult it is to share updating information in the scramble to get it into court, particularly where you have a judge who requires everyone to be in promptly, but it is most unfortunate that the team charged with family finding left matters so late as to create this difficulty. The mother and the children’s guardian are now perhaps understandably cynical about this new information. For the mother, it appears too little too late, and for the children’s guardian it raises questions about the carer’s motivation.
  3. Ms Little for the Local Authority reassures the court and the parties that the issue is not one of finance for the carers but rather their genuine desire to offer a home for three children rather than limiting themselves to one. The question of their motivation and the basis on which they are now able to offer themselves as permanent carer will no doubt be under review in the days following this hearing.
  4. It is nonetheless clear that, since at least December 2012, the Local Authority have been aware that the current carers were at best equivocal about X remaining with them on a long-term basis. What is not clear is what efforts the Local Authority’s Access to Resources Team made to find a permanent placement for X I am told that two referrals were made to the team, the first being the principal referral and the second an updating referral. Moreover I am told that Ms Allen spoke to the team from time to time and was satisfied that they were alive to his need for placement and knew of X’s placement needs. The searches appear to have been limited to two geographical areas in line with the wishes of X and the location of his current placement and school
  5. I am advised that no financial restraints were imposed on family finding. I am further told that it is, and was, reasonable for the Social Work Team to rely on the Access to Resources Team to progress the search for a long term placement on the basis of the two referrals and that no further prompting or enquiry from the Social Work Team was required.

 

 

There are two other Circuit Judge judmgnets published today in which the LA sought Care Orders with a plan of adoption and the Court instead made orders that the children were returned to the birth families. Not of any great legal significance because they turn on their facts, but I know that many of my readers may be interested in such cases and they may also be a useful mental exercise of whether these cases would have had these outcomes in 2011.

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2014/B218.html

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2015/B78.html