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Opposed adoption – outcome is child being placed with grandparents

 

Having gone 13 years without a successful opposition to an adoption order under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (until Holman J’s case in December last year) and now we’ve had two in two days.   (Re S and T 2015 and this one)

 

Re LG (a child) 2015

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/52.html

In this case, the Court was being asked to consider an application by a parent for leave to oppose an adoption application. The Court granted that application, and as a result the prospective adopters withdrew their application, and hence the child has gone to live with grandparents. So the judgment didn’t actually finalise what the Court would have done if it had gone on to a fully contested adoption (but I’m sure that the prospective adopters saw that the writing was on the wall and didn’t want to subject themselves to further pain and subject the child to delay)

 

It was common ground that the grandparents were able to offer good care for the child and that had they been considered during the care proceedings, the child would almost certainly have been placed with them.

So why was it that they WEREN’T considered during care proceedings? That would have avoided the child being placed for adoption and been with prospective adopters for nine months?

It is the father’s case before this court that he declined to tell his family about L’s existence because he felt “scared” to tell them as “he had embarrassed and shamed [his] family and let them down again”. As a result, the extended paternal family had no knowledge of L’s existence during the currency of the care proceedings. The father was pressed by professionals, including the allocated social worker and his own solicitor, to explain why he did not want his family to be involved. During the course of these discussions, he alleged that he had suffered physical abuse at the hands of his own father, L’s paternal grandfather. His case before this court is that this allegation was completely untrue and was said with a view to “getting people off his back”.

 

A word immediately springs to mind about this father, and that word rhymes with ‘glass’  (if you are from the South of England).  He really was an absolute glass in this case.

 

it is obvious to everyone in these proceedings, and it will be obvious to everyone reading this judgment, that these events have been brought about by the father’s conduct. He is a young man, and he has not had the opportunity to explain his conduct in oral evidence before me. On any view, however, it must be acknowledged that as a result of his actions, a number of people have suffered very greatly. Mr and Mrs A, and their older child, have had to endure the terrible ordeal of losing the little girl to whom they had made the extraordinary commitment that all prospective adopters make. Furthermore, his daughter, L, has to cope with the distress and upheaval of moving from the home where she is settled and thriving to live with people she does not know. All this has come about because of the father’s misleading and deceptive behaviour. I hope he will now do whatever he can to ensure that L’s life with his family is as secure as possible.

 

It is quite hard for me, as someone who does Local Authority work all the time, to see how the LA could have gone ahead with their own assessment of the grandparents given that the father didn’t want them to be approached and made a child protection allegation against them.

The system that we have in place involves the parents putting forward family members – these days the issue is raised at every single hearing and included in the order and parents are warned that if they delay in putting forward a family member it may be difficult to get them assessed later on. Or sometimes, the family member comes forward themselves.

It is effectively an “Opt-in” situation – a family member is approached about being a possible carer for the child if and only if their hat is thrown into the ring.

But in a situation as here, where the family member doesn’t know about the proceedings and the parent doesn’t want them to be told, what can you do?  Remember that the reasons for care proceedings can be very sensitive and parents in care proceedings don’t always have a close relationship with their family. As this father said, there can be a sense of shame in your wider family finding out that you have been accused of something or that you are said to be a bad parent.

From a legal perspective, the fact that a parent is in care proceedings is Sensitive Personal Data for the Data Protection Act, and without parental consent, the circumstances in which you could share that information with a family member is really limited.

 

And then, looking at the Family Procedure Rules about the sharing of information about proceedings  (which, in the absence of a parents consent would also include that such proceedings even exist) seem to me to be a bar to telling a grandparent that there are care proceedings in order to explore whether they would put themselves forward  – unless there is leave of the Court.

Finally, there are the article 8 considerations.  The father here (even if we think he has some glass-like qualities) has a right to private and family life, and that can only be interfered with if it is proportionate and necessary.

So, all in all, I think that if there’s a scenario in which family members are known about but the parent objects to them being involved, that’s an issue that has to come before the Court and a decision made.  (I can think of a LOT of situations where a father or mother would be perfectly legitimate in not wanting members of their family to be involved)

I’m not sure that even that is a total solution.

 

Suppose a Court (or a Practice Direction) says that in any case where adoption might be the alterantive that rather than an “opt in” (throw your hat in the ring) system that instead the LA will get out there and chase down and assess any family member who might be suitable.

Okay, you might catch grandmother and grandfather in your net that way, but only if the parent is willing to give you their details so that you can find them.  How big is the net? Do you stop at Uncles? Great-Uncles? Cousins? Don’t forget friends – the Act is all about connected persons -or families and friends. You might be able to get a family tree out of a parent  (though good luck in doing it with parents who are in the grip of heroin use and who don’t engage with the process at all), but are you going to get a full and exhaustive list of all of their friends too? What if they make new friends between the care proceedings and the adoption application?

If you cast the net wide enough to catch everyone, then you are going to have an unholy amount of investigation and checking to do to give the Court information about everyone in the net to be sure that there’s not someone there who could be a carer for this child. You aren’t going to do that within 26 weeks. Hell, even finding some of these people can take longer than that.

And is a Local Authority (or a Court) really going to push for an assessment of a grandfather in a case where his own son (as here) says “When I was a child, this awful thing happened to me”?   On a twenty-six week timetable? I think not.

So I see what Baker J is getting at when he says this :-

 

although I have no specific criticism of this local authority’s work, (which I have not had an opportunity to examine in detail), this case illustrates the crucial importance of identifying at an early stage in public law proceedings any potential family members with whom a child can be placed. Local authorities must strive to identify the best possible methods of identifying such placements, and must not easily be distracted by comments made by natural parents which may conceal the truth.

 

I am not at all sure that this sentiment survives any contact with the real world, when you think what is involved.

The Judge is as nice as he can be to the prospective adopters, but I’m sure these words are as small a consolation as the consoling words given to parents after  care proceedings are

    1. My final observations are addressed to Mr and Mrs A. I can hardly begin to appreciate the anguish that you, and your older child, must now be feeling at losing the little girl whom you accepted into your care and looked after in an exemplary fashion. Although the birth family undoubtedly had a strong argument for opposing adoption, I do not know for certain what order I would have made at the conclusion of a contested hearing. You have made the courageous decision not to proceed with your application and to allow L to return to her birth family as soon as possible. I had not been told in detail the reasons for your decision but, from what I have read, I am confident that you would not have taken this step unless you believed it to be in L’s best interests. In those circumstances, I have nothing but admiration for your actions. I know that there will be some contact between L and you and your other child, although the details are yet to be agreed. I am sure that, as she grows older, L will come to understand and appreciate the wonderful things that you have done for her, both in looking after her for the past eight months, and in making this great sacrifice that has enabled her to be returned to her birth family.

 

 

There is a legal argument about the fact that father’s case at this hearing was really both an application for leave to oppose an adoption order AND a simultaneous application by the grandparents for a Special Guardianship Order, and thus whether the grandparents application (which required leave) should be heard under that test. The Court weren’t persuaded by that.

Counsel for the prospective adopters made what I think are some telling and important points about public policy – they didn’t succeed, but as more cases about adoption involve long-drawn out contested court hearings and a degree of unpredictability about the outcome, that is going to inexorably lead to less and less people being willing to put themselves through that.  I’ve represented adopters in the past and they all utterly dreaded the Court hearings and didn’t sleep and worried about the outcome – and that was in the days when I’d be able to advise them that the prospects of the adoption order not being made were vanishingly tiny.

As Ms Hyde of counsel says – the only real way for adopters to protect themselves and the child that they are considering as a family member in Court proceedings, is to delay the application so that it has been two or three years since the child came to live with them, so that no Court would contemplate moving the child.  That’s the exact opposite of what the Government are trying to achieve with adoption, and I’m sure that also there are many good reasons why that lack of finality and the order itself is not good for the family dynamics  (otherwise why ever have the adoption order? Just stay on a Placement Order forever)

 

Miss Hyde submits that the court should give particular weight to policy considerations. She contends that, if the court now allows an application which may thwart a successful adoption application, there will be grave and wide-ranging policy consequences. First, Miss Hyde submits that it will lead to a reduction in the pool of prospective adopters who will be discouraged from coming forward if there is perceived to be an increased risk of a late challenge to the adoption after the child has been placed. Secondly, she submits that the advice to future prospective adopters would inevitably be to refrain from making the adoption application until the child has been placed with them for a number of years so as to reduce the risk that the application will be opposed. This would be contrary to public policy because it would extend the period of uncertainty for the child. Thirdly, she contends that it will be extremely difficult for any court to control the timetable for assessment of family members in care proceedings, and thus the policy of identifying such placements as quickly as possible, which is an important feature of the Public Law Outline, (now in Practice Direction 12A of the Family Procedure Rules), will be undermined.

 

I think Miss Hyde is right on every single aspect. Does it mean that the Court were wrong in this particular case? No, I don’t think so. But these legal decisions can’t be looked at in isolation.  They are an interesting discussion point for us lawyers, but if you are a prospective adopter who has taken a child into their home and into their heart, a case like this is a shockwave.

The Judge said this

  1. The crucial point, however, is that the purpose of all these policies is to serve the overall welfare of children. Where the law requires the court to give paramount consideration to the welfare of the individual child, and her welfare clearly points to one particular outcome, it would be manifestly wrong to allow her welfare to be overridden by any policy considerations.
  2. Furthermore, anyone reading this judgment will realise that the circumstances of this case (the father’s deceptive and misleading conduct, and the subsequent discovery that the birth family is, on the written evidence, manifestly able to care for the child) are very unusual. I hope, therefore, that prospective adopters will not be discouraged from coming forward as a result of this case. Adoption has a crucial role to play in our society and it is very important that people should not be discouraged from putting themselves forward as adopters. Those who do must, however, be advised that, where placement orders have been made, the law allows parents to be granted leave to oppose an adoption application where there has been a change of circumstances and the court concludes that the child’s welfare, which is the paramount consideration, requires that leave be granted. Applications for leave will only be made in a minority of cases and in most cases are unlikely to succeed, but Parliament has allowed the right to apply for leave to oppose adoption applications in such circumstances and all prospective adopters should be advised that this is the law.

When I wrote about Holman J’s case, I wrote that an easy inference about the case was that it was an extraordinary set of circumstances that would never arise again and it could be discounted,  it was a stable door that could be shut although one horse had got through and bolted

 

but that a closer inspection of the case showed that at heart, it was about a family member who wasn’t assessed within care proceedings and could demonstrate that this wasn’t their fault.  That is a set of circumstances that could potentially apply to any case.  This case proves the point.

How can I know, how can adopters know in any case, that every family member who might concievably come forward in a years time, two years time, was considered and dealt with in the care proceedings?  Maybe they weren’t in a position to care THEN, but they are now…

Is there such a thing any longer as an adoption application that is water-tight and can be considered as a sure thing?

 

This isn’t the last of these. Not by a long shot.

 

I look forward to seeing the Myth-busting document on these developments.

 

 

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Adoption and American immigration

I have been waiting since Re B-S for one of these cases to come up, and it finally has.

Where a family member is put forward to care for a child, and that family member lives in America, the net effect of American immigration law is that in order to be able to get the child into the country to live with that family member, you’d need an adoption order. Nothing less than that would do for American immigration authorities. BUT, does that amount to ‘nothing else will do’ for the English family Court?

 

Re S and T (children) 2015  looks at that issue.

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2015/1753.html

 

Much of the case also involves the horrid rigmarole because in order to apply for an adoption order in England, the prospective adopters need to be habitually resident in England or Wales AND to have had a home in England for 10 weeks before the application.  (In practice, this is an utter nightmare in any case where the relatives are American, as it just causes logistical problems that don’t arise in any other country).  So if you are interested in those matters  those are in the early parts of the judgment, and it shows you the tangle that the process can become.

But my real interest is in the analysis of whether the US immigration requirements of ‘adoption or you’re not coming in’ amount to ‘nothing else will do’

This case is made more complex because they were initially private law proceedings brought about because the father removed the children to Pakistan, their mother later died of cancer, and it seems that the children have been actually living in America since July 2014  (as a result of a ‘holiday’ order made by Singer J, permitting the children, who were wards of Court, to go and stay with their maternal great aunt and great uncle for a defined period of time.  It is the great aunt and great uncle who applied for an adoption order under s84 Adoption and Children Act 2002, with the intention of later applying for an adoption order under US law.

 

[There are complicated technical reasons why they had to do it that way round, but basically if the English Court didn’t make an Adoption Order, they wouldn’t be able to get one in America, and the children wouldn’t be able to live with them]

 

The father was not consenting to the plan of adoption, and was actively opposing it, and there was no Placement Order (or application for a Placement Order)

  1. The issues: can the father’s consent be dispensed with?
  2. The father opposes the making of any adoption order and any order under section 84 of the 2002 Act. The applicants submit that his consent can be dispensed with. He disputes this.
  3. In my judgment, it is clear that there is nothing in section 84 itself to preclude the court dispensing with the father’s consent. Regulation 11(1)(p) is clear recognition that section 52(1) applies to an order under section 84. Moreover, Form A61, the application form to be used in applications under section 84, contains, in Part 3, para (j), provision for an application to dispense with parental consent. The father’s argument, however, is based on the wording of Articles 4 and 16 of the Convention which, he submits, plainly contemplates that a Convention adoption such as is proposed in this case cannot proceed in the absence of parental consent.
  4. I have set out the relevant passages already, but for convenience I will repeat the critical wording. Article 4(c)(2) provides that an adoption can take place “only” if:

    “the persons … whose consent is necessary for adoption … have given their consent freely.”

    Article 16(1)(c) provides that the Central Authority of the State of origin “shall”:

    “ensure that consents have been obtained in accordance with Article 4.”

    Article 16(2) provides that the Central Authority of the State of origin “shall”:

    “transmit to the Central Authority of the receiving State … proof that the necessary consents have been obtained.”

  5. The Convention does not contain any provisions identifying what consents are necessary. On a plain reading of the Convention, it leaves it to the domestic law of the State of origin to determine what, if any consents, are “necessary”. This is borne out by paragraph 129 of the Explanatory Report on the Convention drawn up by G Parra-Aranguren:

    “The persons whose consent is necessary on behalf of the child are determined by the applicable law: it will usually include … the child’s biological parents.”

  6. English domestic law enables the court to “dispense with” a parent’s consent in accordance with section 47(2)(c) of the 2002 Act if the requirements of section 52(1)(b) are satisfied. Those provisions apply both where the application is for an adoption order and where the application is for an order under section 84: see regulation 11(1)(l). They likewise apply in a Convention case: see regulation 55.
  7. The point is, ultimately, a very short one, incapable of much elaboration, but, in my judgment, where the court has “dispensed” with a parent’s consent in accordance with sections 47(2)(c) and 52(1)(b), that parent’s consent is no longer “necessary” within the meaning of Article 4(c)(2). It is not “necessary” because it has been “dispensed with”. It follows, in my judgment, that the court can in principle, as the applicants contend, dispense with the father’s consent in the present case.

 

The President having decided that the Court COULD dispense with father’s consent, then had to decide whether it SHOULD.

  1. The issues: should the father’s consent be dispensed with?
  2. The father submits that, even taking all the available material at its highest, there is no basis upon which the court could properly dispense with his consent and that on this ground alone I should dismiss the applicants’ claim here and now.
  3. In short, the father’s case is that, although he has been the subject of many serious findings – a proposition not challenged before me – they cannot be determinative. Indeed, it is said, they are not sufficient, on a proper welfare analysis, to justify the severing of the children’s relationship with him through adoption.
  4. It is properly common ground before me that, if the father’s consent is to be dispensed with, the applicants have to demonstrate that “nothing else will do”: see 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, and Re R (A Child) [2014] EWCA Civ 1625. As the Strasbourg court said in Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33, [2012] 2 FLR 332, para 134, “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.” The local authority makes the same point when it observes, and I agree, that what might ‘tip the balance’ in a private law case does not necessarily suffice to justify adoption in the face of parental opposition.
  5. Putting the issue into context, there are two striking features of this case. The first is that the local authority, having considered the matter very carefully, has doubts (a) whether the ‘threshold’ in section 31 of the 1989 Act is met and (b) whether, even if threshold is met, it would apply for a care order, let alone a placement order. The second is that, in truth, adoption is being considered here only because of the seeming imperatives of United States of America immigration law. As the local authority puts it, the issue of adoption would certainly not have arisen but for the stance of the United States of America’s authorities. Counsel for the guardian was equally explicit: “It is purely the immigration requirements of the USA which dictate that although the dispute is between family members, a placement with the applicants will require an adoption process.”
  6. I make clear that neither of these factors can alone, or in combination, be determinative. One can, for example, conceive of a case in which “nothing else will do” precisely because of a requirement of foreign immigration law. But they are, nonetheless, very striking features of this case which must, at the very least, give one pause for thought.

 

 

The President is saying there that the US immigration requirement for adoption as a pre-requisite for the child living in the country MIGHT amount to “nothing else will do” or it MIGHT not. It isn’t determinative either way, and will depend on the merits and background features of the case.  [It appears that with strong reasons why the child can’t live with birth parents and has to live elsewhere, the immigration component might tip the balance, but where the ‘threshold’ component is weak, that it might not]

 

In looking at what might amount to ‘threshold’ against father, the President identified these matters

 

  1. What are the matters alleged against the father? They include, but are not limited, to the specific matters found by Sir Peter Singer as set out in his judgment given on 1 October 2014:

    i) Domestic violence of the father inflicted on the mother in August 2012 (judgment, paras 28-29): details can be found in the maternal uncle’s statement dated 11 April 2014.ii) The fact that the father removed the children to Pakistan in December 2012 without the mother’s consent (judgment, para 80(i)) – something emotionally abusive of both the mother and the children.

    iii) The fact that the father in effect abandoned the children between March 2013 and April 2014 (see paragraph 2 above), though he claims this was on the basis of legal advice he received in Pakistan.

    iv) The unlikelihood of the father fostering any kind of relationship between the children and the maternal family (judgment, para 79) – though this is something he now says he will do: see his statement dated 31 October 2014.

    v) The fact that the father put forward two bogus documents: a purported will of the mother dated 29 August 2013 and a purported “confession” of the mother (judgment, paras 80(ii) and 80(iii)).

    vi) The fact that the father “laid the ground for attempting” to obtain the insurance monies arising out of the mother’s death (judgment, para 80(v)).

    I am of course concerned with those matters which are relevant to the children’s welfare. It is hard to see that (v) and (vi), however deplorable, go to that issue.

  2. As against this, the following matters have to be borne in mind:

    i) Sir Peter Singer’s finding that the applicants and the children’s maternal uncle “deliberately” did not inform the father of the death of the mother “in order, as they sought, better to advance their own case for the children to remain with the mother’s family and in order to distance themselves from him for reasons which, because of his behaviour, are apparent” (judgment, para 80(vi)).ii) The quality of the contact between the father and the children as demonstrated, for example, by the records of contact sessions on 15, 17, 21 and 23 October 2014

     

 

I think that the Guardian’s conclusions are interesting and telling  (it is not really a right way to approach the law)

 

“I do not believe the father can meet the children’s global needs to the extent that [the applicants] can. I have sought in this report to delineate the differences between the father as a potential long term carer for the children in Pakistan and their great aunt and uncle in the USA.

The father’s position is not without merit and this is a finely balanced decision. If there was no one but the children’s father to care for them it is likely that despite his deficits he might be considered good enough. However if there is an alternative, and I accept that the mechanism for achieving an adoption placement for the children in the USA is inchoate, I take the view for the reasons adumbrated within this report, that this is preferable and in the children’s best lifelong interests than living with their father in Pakistan.

I fall back on the aspiration that this Court can do better for these children than place them with their father in Pakistan; it can honour and make possible their mother’s legacy because she knew what was best for her daughters.

 

That comes very close to (if not actually arriving at) a conclusion that if there were no  relatives in America, the children should be with their father, but because the children would have a better life with the relatives in America, adoption is the right plan.  That’s precisely the opposite conclusion of Y v United Kingdom 2012  (the case that launched Re B and all that followed it)  http://www.bailii.org/eu/cases/ECHR/2012/433.html “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

If the Court were approaching this as a pure ‘beauty contest’  – who comes across better, who might be able to meet the child’s needs better, with whom might the child have a better life, the maternal great aunt and great uncle would have won hands-down.  It is decidedly possible that if the great aunt lived in Ilford, not Illinois, and the order was a private law order rather than adoption, that the Court would have gone with that option.  There’s no presumption in private family law that a father would beat a grandparent or aunt. Re E-R 2015 for example http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed144557

 

But that’s not the approach with adoption.

 

It clearly isn’t the strongest set of ‘threshold’ or risks that father might pose the children, and the Guardian’s analysis whilst intending to be a reason why the Court should make the adoption order and allow the children to live /stay with their maternal family in America actually makes the legal argument as to why the Court shouldn’t.

 

 

  1. In these circumstances, the first question I have to consider is whether, on the evidence currently before me, I could be satisfied that the father’s consent “requires” to be dispensed with (the language of section 52(1)(b) of the 2002 Act) within the principles set out in Re P (Placement Orders: Parental Consent) [2008] EWCA Civ 535, [2008] 2 FLR 625, and In re B-S (Children) (Adoption Order: Leave to Oppose) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, [2014] 1 WLR 563, [2014] 1 FLR 1035; whether I could be satisfied that “nothing else will do.” The short answer is that I could not be so satisfied. I agree with the father that the material at present before the court falls far short of meeting the required standard. Taking the matters I have summarised in paragraph 68 above at their highest, the case for adoption is simply not made out. One really only has to consider what is said in the reports of LB and JP and, equally significant, what those reports do not say.
  2. This being so, the second question is whether the proceedings should nonetheless continue. This comes down to two questions: (1) Is there some solid, evidence based, reason to believe that with further forensic activity – the testing of the existing evidence by cross-examination or giving the parties an opportunity to adduce further evidence – the conclusion might be different? This requires a robust and realistic appraisal of what is possible, an appraisal which is evidence based, with a solid foundation, not driven by sentiment or a hope that ‘something may turn up’. (2) Is there some solid advantage to the children in continuing the proceeding?
  3. In my judgment, there is no basis in the materials currently before the court for any belief that prolongation of the process carries with it any realistic prospect of the court ever being satisfied that the father’s consent requires to be dispensed with, that nothing else will do. The deficit in the existing evidence is simply too great to imagine that there is any realistic prospect of the gap being bridged. And in the circumstances, not least bearing in mind the length of time these proceedings have been going on, far from there being any solid advantage to the children in continuing the proceedings, their welfare requires finality now.
  4. The proceedings should now be brought to an end.
  5. I am very conscious that the consequence of this, in a sense, is that the father wins by default. The children go to him because the only alternative is ruled out because adoption is ruled out. But it is fundamentally important that children are not to be adopted merely because their parenting is less than perfect, indeed, perhaps, only barely adequate. To repeat what was said in Y v United Kingdom (2012) 55 EHRR 33, [2012] 2 FLR 332, para 134, “It is not enough to show that a child could be placed in a more beneficial environment for his upbringing.”

 

So the children were to be brought back to England by August, and to go back to the care of their father.

This, I think, is only the second reported case where a child was taken from prospective adopters who had been caring for the child for a significant period of time, and placed with either a parent or family member. The first of course was Holman J’s https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/12/05/i-would-put-this-as-a-must-read-adoption-case-dynamite/

 

In that case, the interest of the child being placed with an aunt outweighed that of remaining with prospective adopters, in this one, the interest of the children being placed with dad outweighed that of remaining with prospective adopters who were family members.  (Blood is thicker than water, but parental blood is thicker than blood, perhaps)

Of course this one is rather different, since there hadn’t been any Court determination that adoption was the right plan for the child, and the plan of adoption arose solely as a result of US immigration law, but it does show that the Court is willing to implement the philosphy of Y v UK in real life cases and to reach decisions that it feels to me would not have been made in 2011.

Good luck anybody running a case with an American relative in getting the case done within 26 weeks.

 

I would put this as a must-read (adoption case, dynamite)

 

The case is very fact-specific (the facts are extraordinary) but it is still very important.

 

I’ve written before about the leave to oppose adoption case law and whether this is a meaningful legal right given that there are no reported cases of an adoption being successfully opposed (there’s one law report of a Court being persuaded to make a Residence Order rather than adoption, but the child remaining with the prospective adopters).

 

For it to be a meaningful legal right, there must be some set of circumstances which would result in the opposition to adoption resulting in placement back in the birth family. But, the consequences of that for the recruitment and retention of adopters is massive.

 

As Holman J observed, this case is likely to attract strong opinions on both sides, and it does turn very much on an unprecedented set of facts.

 

Re A and B and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/47.html

 

 

 

The child, C, was the subject of Care proceedings and a Care Order and Placement Order were made in August 2013. The child was placed with prospective adopters (A and B) and they duly applied for an adoption order.

 

At the time of this hearing, the child was 20 months old and had lived with A and B for 13 months.

 

The child’s genetic father, who had not been a party to the care proceedings (and who does not hold PR for the child) sought leave to oppose.

 

This is the telling paragraph

 

It is accepted by all concerned in this case that if the father had come forward and the true paternity had been established at any time up to the moment when the child was actually placed with A and B, then he would not have been placed with them and, after due assessment of her, would almost certainly have been placed with the aunt.

 

 

I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but that paragraph is dynamite.

 

As is this one

 

The case and dilemma has provoked divergent professional opinions. The front line social workers for each of the child and A and B support the making of an adoption order. A child psychologist who was jointly instructed to perform a “paper exercise”, but has not met anyone concerned, favours the making of an adoption order. The Director of Safeguarding Children and Families and interim Strategic Director Children’s Services of the local authority (equivalent to the Director of Social Services in this field), who is the decision maker and who expresses the considered opinion and case of the local authority, firmly resists adoption and advocates that the child moves to live with the aunt. The child’s guardian also strongly advocates that outcome.

 

 

That made me blink several times, so I will spell it out. The social workers supported the adoption, but the Guardian AND MORE SIGNIFICANTLY the Director of Social Services supported the child being placed with the paternal aunt.

 

That really is an extremely difficult issue to resolve. As a Local Authority legal hack, the idea of a Director and Social Worker in an intractable difference of opinion makes me shudder. [This Director was clearly very fair minded in not just saying “well, I’m the big boss, so do what I say”]

 

I’m not surprised by what Holman J says at the opening of this judgment.

 

 

I have been a full time judge of the Family Division for almost twenty years. In all that time, apart from cases concerning serious ill health, I have rarely heard a more harrowing case. The hearing was a very painful one for all concerned, and I sincerely thank all parties and the professional witnesses for their attention, dignity and, to the extent possible, good humour. I know, and deeply regret, that my decision will cause intense grief. After hearing all the evidence and argument, and after due consideration, I am, however, clear as to the outcome, which I do not reach narrowly or marginally.

 

 

I’ve read many of Holman J’s judgments over the last few years, and he really has dealt with harrowing, peculiar and emotionally draining cases repeatedly, so to say that speaks volumes.

 

 

This passage will probably appear again – it is how the Court deals with the issue of “speculation” (and I think it is wonderfully constructed)

 

There is one further “legal” matter which it is convenient to mention in this section of this judgment. At times during the hearing, when longer term risks or advantages were being mentioned or considered, Mr Power referred, understandably but somewhat dismissively, to “speculation”. Advocates, and also judges, often do dismiss points as speculative or speculation. However, in relation to adoption, the Adoption and Children Act 2002 very clearly does require courts (and adoption agencies) to speculate. It requires, as the overarching duty, that the paramount consideration must be the child’s welfare throughout his life. This child is still less than two. He is healthy, and his normal life expectancy may be around a further 80 years. It is probable (but speculative) that he and his half sister, F, and his cousin, G, will outlive all the adults in this case by many years. I am required by statute to take a very long term view, but I cannot gaze into a crystal ball. I can only speculate. More specifically, the court is required by section 1(4) (c) of the Act to have regard to “the likely effect on the child (throughout his life) of having ceased to be a member of the original family and become an adopted person.” Whilst that paragraph requires the court to consider only the “likely” effect, any such consideration involves speculation; and (speaking generally) the further ahead one looks (and one must envisage a whole lifetime) the more speculative such consideration necessarily becomes. My decision in this case does include speculation. That is what Parliament has told me to do.

 

 

You may, as I was, be interested in how it was that this aunt was not a feature in the care proceedings. If she had been known about then, the Placement Order would not have been made and the child never placed with the prospective adopters A and B. So why wasn’t she known about?

 

 

This is the most fact-specific bit of the case, I think. (It is not THAT unusual for a birth father to be untraced during the proceedings and to appear later, it is the WHY that is significant here. Mr E here is NOT the genetic father, but he is the man who appears on the birth certificate as the father, and who was treated as the father in care proceedings)

 

The mother is a young woman of white ethnicity who is still in her very early twenties. She has had problems with both alcohol and drugs. While a teenager she had already had two children by different fathers. They are now aged about 5 and nearly 4. They were removed into care and have since been adopted together by one adoptive family. (I will refer to them later as the adopted maternal half siblings.) The mother began a relationship with Mr E. He, too, has had an unstable past and has a criminal record for a range of offences of both violence and dishonesty, and a recorded history of drug abuse. In March 2013 the mother gave birth to C. He was a normal, healthy baby, and is now a normal, healthy young child. As had already been pre-planned by Rotherham, care proceedings were immediately commenced and the baby was removed from the mother five days after his birth and placed with foster parents. Neither the mother nor Mr E engaged with the care proceedings nor, effectively, with the local authority. However, the mother and Mr E jointly registered the birth on 18 April 2013, jointly stating and signing that Mr E was the father to the best of their knowledge and belief.

 

[Keep that in mind – the mother was white]

 

 

The child’s social worker, from the end of March 2013 and still now, is Miss Claire Fogwill. She did not know or meet Mr E for some time. She did, however, see the baby. I have seen photographs taken of him shortly after his birth, including the original colour photograph which is part of the later formal application form for the placement order. Although not black, the baby is very obviously very brown and has obvious negroid features. These are not racist comments. They are relevant facts. As all concerned with the case agree, he very obviously appeared to be of mixed race. Miss Fogwill said in her oral evidence that “when [she] first saw him as a baby he seemed obviously to have a black parent or at any rate a strong black/negroid genetic strain.”

 

Miss Fogwill was finally able to meet Mr E, who was in prison, on 22 May 2013. She said that she was expecting to meet a black man and “was quite shocked” when he came into the room, since he appeared to be an entirely white man. She asked him whether he was the biological father. He said that he was. (It is, of course, entirely possible that the mother had assured Mr E that he was the father, if she had never confessed to him that she had been having sex on the side with the actual father. As I have no evidence at all from either the mother or Mr E, I simply do not know.) Miss Fogwill questioned Mr E further and, according to Miss Fogwill, he told her that the baby was very brown because he, Mr E, had a Burmese mother, and added that the baby would become paler with age. Neither Miss Fogwill nor, so far as I am aware, anyone else, took any steps to seek to verify whether in truth Mr E has a Burmese mother. I personally do not have the slightest idea. Miss Fogwill claimed that she was “not able to meet the mother again to ask her about paternity”, but in truth she made little effort to do so, and she made no enquiries of the mother’s own mother whose whereabouts were settled and known.

 

Miss Fogwill made reports to Looked After Reviews on 12 April, 13 May and 11 July 2013. Also present at, and chairing, these reviews was the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO). The minutes of the first two reviews record that the child “… is a child of mixed heritage. His mother is white British … the social worker is, to date, unclear of father’s ethnicity and has asked [sic] father to clarify this …” The minutes of the review on 11 July, also chaired by the IRO, record that “… the social worker has clarified with father that he is dual heritage as his mother is Burmese … the parents wished for the child to be referred to as White British, despite his presentation not reflecting this. Father [viz Mr E] informed the social worker that he expected the child’s skin colour to change with age …” There is no hint in those minutes that the IRO queried the account of paternity or suggested that further enquiries should be made. I do not make a criticism of the IRO for she has not been involved in this hearing and has had no opportunity to state her own point of view, but I accept the point made by Mr Prest that the responsibility of Miss Fogwill appears to have been shared with others. Miss Fogwill has, however, accepted that she made a serious error in swallowing the explanation of the Burmese mother (i.e. the child’s grandmother) and not investigating paternity further, and she has apologised from the witness box to both the true paternal family and the applicants for adoption. Miss Fogwill’s formal report to the court dated 28 June 2013 in support of the application for a placement order depicts a photograph of the child as I have already described, and refers to his having black hair and brown eyes and a dark complexion. It continues that the mother is white British and Mr E is half white British and half Burmese as his mum was Burmese and father white British. “[C’s] skin is quite dark however [Mr E] states that as [C] becomes older his skin will become paler. [Mr E’s] skin is white.”

 

The present guardian, Mrs Sheila Hassall, also acted in the care and placement proceedings. In her report dated 19 July 2013 she describes Mr E as “White British Burmese” and says at paragraph 12 “[C’s] paternal grandmother is Burmese, although I understand his father [viz Mr E] views himself as white British. At present [C] has the appearance of a baby who is not white British …” As I understand it, the guardian herself never actually met either the mother or Mr E. So she merely accepted the story via the social worker. She said that she only ever saw a blurred black and white photocopy photograph of the child. She said that she visited the baby once at the home of the foster mother. However he was asleep, face downwards, with his head largely covered. She only saw one arm sticking out. The arm looked brown but she did not examine the baby further. Mrs Hassall accepted her share of responsibility. She said during her oral evidence: “I make a heartfelt apology we are in this situation. I feel desperately sorry for all those involved.”

 

I have already referred to the report to the court for the application for a placement order. I do not know whether the circuit judge saw the original with the colour photograph which, as I have described, very clearly depicts a brown child of mixed race with negroid features; or whether he saw a black and white photocopy, one version of which I have seen, which shows the child’s face as a barely distinguishable large black blob like a large blob of spilt ink. At all events, the judge appears not to have raised any question about true paternity at the, probably short, hearing when he made the care and placement orders.

 

 

If you are following this, Mr E was named as the father on the birth certificate, the mother said that he was the father, and he said he was the father. The contradictory evidence (of people’s eyes) was firstly an area that people feel uncomfortable with – that of colour, and secondly Mr E had given an explanation for it that was accepted. On that first point, just reading the paragraph, even when said by a Judge, it made me feel uncomfortable to read that ‘n’ word.

 

So a last opportunity seriously to question paternity and consider obvious avenues of further enquiry was lost. I accept, of course, that such enquiries might not necessarily have uncovered the true father, but they well might have done, for the affair between the true father and the mother was well known in the community and circle within which they lived. The mother’s own mother certainly knew the true facts, as will later appear.

 

 

Let’s also not forget that in a culture of 26 weeks, no delay, and assessments only being done if they are ‘necessary’, it might have taken some persuasion to get the DNA test of Mr E done. If it had been done, the proceedings would have been delayed, but an inordinate amount of time and pain would have been avoided.

 

How did the real father ever find out about this? Deep breath, because this is quite complicated too.

 

The father was in a long-term relationship with someone else, Miss D. When he had been sleeping with the mother, he was cheating on Miss D. There had been speculation in the community and gossip, and someone came up to Miss D and showed her a photograph of the child as a baby.

 

Soon after the child was born someone showed Miss D a photograph of the baby. She could see that the colour and the features looked like her own daughter, F, and also like the father. She told him “I really think he is your child.” He continued to deny to her that he had had sex with the mother and that, therefore, he could be the father.

 

It seems, though this is not explicit, that these suspicions continued and finally the father’s sister (the aunt in question) approached the Local Authority in March 2014   to say that she thought her brother was the true father of this child. (For timing purposes, that’s seven months after the Placement Order, and two months after the prospective adopters had made their application to adopt)

 

On 6 March 2014 the aunt first contacted the social services and said that her brother might be the father of the baby. Miss Fogwill was shocked and surprised by this news. She and a more senior colleague interviewed the father on 14 March 2014. She then immediately arranged for DNA sampling and testing of the baby and the man, and a report dated 24 March 2014 established a 99.9999 per cent probability that he is indeed the father. All parties including A and B accept that he definitely is the father and the case has since proceeded on that basis. The father is a black African who was born and brought up in that continent. He is now aged 32. His own father died when he was young. He himself travelled to England in 2001 and claimed asylum. He has lived here ever since and has indefinite leave to remain. He is the seventh of a large family of eight children. His own mother, now aged 64, now lives in the Midlands. Two brothers live in the Midlands and South Wales. A sister lives in East Anglia, and his youngest sister, the aunt, lives in the Home Counties. The brothers and sisters in England and Wales have between them eight children who are paternal first cousins of C. Some of them are of mixed race, having also a white parent. The father’s three other siblings live variously within Africa and Canada. There is, therefore, a considerable extended paternal family, mostly located within England and Wales.

 

 

But hold on a minute – this all happened within a small community, and whether the father knew or not that he was the genetic father of this baby, he must surely have known that as he had been sleeping with the mother, there was a chance that he might have been?   The Judge found that he was aware of that.

 

And did he know that the baby was in care?

 

This evidence as a whole satisfies me that, within a very few weeks of the birth at the latest, the father knew perfectly well that it was highly likely that he was the father of the baby. He could not of course be certain, since he knew also that the mother had had other sexual partners. But she told him, in effect, that the baby was half black and that he had been her only black partner. Short of DNA testing, the likelihood was obvious.

 

He took no action at all. He showed no real interest in the baby, or even much interest in seeing him, although he did ask the mother if he could do so. I do not know why not, but it was probably due, at least in part, to his continuing stance of denial to Miss D. Whatever the reason, it is a significant part of the history of this case that for almost a year the father showed no interest at all in, or commitment at all to, the child, and denied rather than asserted that he was the father. So as well as the responsibility of Rotherham, the guardian, and possibly the court, for not investigating paternity further, a very heavy responsibility for events lies upon the father. If he had shown any real interest in the baby and put himself forward in any way as the likely father, then the true facts would probably have emerged much earlier and the baby would never have been placed with A and B.

 

A separate and distinct question is when the father first learned that the baby was in care. His case is that he learned this for the first time at the beginning of March 2014. He said that he saw the mother’s mother in the town. He asked her where the child was. The mother’s mother said that he was in care and that the mother had lied to him. He then immediately spoke to and told his sister, the aunt, and at his request she immediately contacted the social services. He says that in the first weeks after the birth he had indeed asked the mother if he could see the baby and she had fobbed him off by saying that the baby was staying with her mother or sister. She also misled him into thinking that she was caring for the baby by asking him on a few occasions for money for nappies.

 

To the very end of his evidence, even when recalled and admitting what I have recorded above with regard to his knowledge of paternity, the father remained adamant that it was only around early March 2014 that he first learned that the baby was in care, and that he at once informed the social services and requested that he or his family could care for the baby.

 

 

This last point might be critical – if the father knew that he was probably the baby’s father, he could have legitimately kept quiet not to rock the boat and jeopardise his relationship with Miss D UP UNTIL he knew that the baby was in care, whereupon it was time to speak up.

 

The Court concluded that his evidence that he had not known until shortly before his sister approached Social Services should be accepted.

 

I have to decide whether I am satisfied on a balance of probability that the father knew that the baby was in care as early as about April 2013, as the local authority allege; or only in early March 2014, as he himself claims. On this issue there is force in the point Miss Ford makes on the third page of her written closing submissions dated 21.11.14, and as she elaborated orally. The father’s case is that he first learned that the baby, of whom he was likely to be the father, was in care in early March 2014. He immediately contacted the social services (initially via his sister) and has, unquestionably, strenuously sought the move of the child to live with him or his family ever since. It was only later that he learned that the child had actually been placed for adoption or that there was a current application to adopt him. So, as Miss Ford puts it, his conduct by contacting social workers in March 2014 can only be explained by his having only recently learned that the child was in care. No other event or trigger has been identified as to why, having done nothing and shown no interest for so long, he suddenly did then make the contact which he did. Miss Ford asks, rhetorically: Assuming that he had known that the child was in care from, say, mid or late April 2013, why did he suddenly do something and with such resolve in March 2014? She submits that the activity in and after March 2014, for which there is no known other explanation, is really only consistent with his having recently learned in March 2014 that the child was in care.

 

I take into account the demeanour of the father in the witness box when he was recalled. At the same time as now admitting that soon after the birth the mother herself had told him that he was the father, he maintained his account, apparently convincingly, that he only knew that the baby was in care almost a year later, and said that the social worker must have misunderstood him. I also accept the force of Miss Ford’s point as described in the previous paragraph. There was room for misunderstanding, and I am not satisfied on a balance of probability that the father knew that the baby had been taken into care earlier than early March 2014, when he took action at once.

 

 

 

So, that’s how this situation arose. The person who had been treated as the father in the care proceedings was not the real father, and the real father had not known of the care proceedings because nobody had thought to tell him. The only person who knew both key sets of facts was the mother, and she had taken no action.  [The maternal grandmother might have known, by my reading, but whether that is definitive is hard to say]

 

 

The judgment then talks about the various assessments, but the long and the short of it is, the options available were to make an adoption order to A and B, or to remove the child from A and B and to place with the paternal aunt.

 

A and B were clearly very good, capable and loving people, well capable of caring for the child. The Judge said this about them :-

 

 

Even before C was matched with them, A and B prepared themselves very thoroughly as prospective adopters. They read widely. They attended courses. They learned about the importance of attachment, stimulation and other parenting qualities. This stood them and him in good stead. I accept unreservedly the current assessment by Miss Lancaster that A and B are the “perfect” adoptive couple. She said in her oral evidence that in spite of all the challenges they are remarkable people. They are excellent adopters doing a remarkable job. If she could paint the ideal adopters they are not far from the mark. They have an excellent understanding about attachment, about which they were trained. The have a very good understanding about the impact of loss and trauma. They have great appreciation of the kind of parenting styles that work well.

 

I accept unreservedly that C is now very well attached to A and B. He feels, and is, secure with them. They provide an excellent home. They are also undoubtedly deeply attached to him. B said very movingly “He is such a happy, settled, loving little person who knows who we are … I am so proud of him. I love him so much. I will always love him. He will always be my son.” C is also a familiar and much loved member of the extended families of both A and B.

 

There is no doubt that if the true paternal family had not emerged and put themselves forward in the way that they have, an adoption order would have been made several months ago.

 

 

And the Aunt?

My own impression of the aunt was very favourable. She is much more articulate than her brother, the father. She appeared to be thoughtful and flexible, and insightful and understanding of the issues in this case. She said that she has prepared her own son, G, for the possibility that he might be joined by another, younger, boy. She talks to G about C, and G would not be surprised if C became part of their family. She said that G himself is a lovely boy, very caring and very sharing, who plays very well with other kids. She paid generous and sincere tribute to A and B although of course she has never met nor seen them. She said she was just so grateful for what they have done. It is beautiful. They have taken very good care of him.

 

 

Even the social workers who were supporting the child being adopted by A and B were not critical of the aunt, just feeling that the child ought not to be moved.

 

 

[I will quickly note that the Aunt and Miss D were represented pro bono by counsel and solicitors, which was an extremely helpful and generous thing]

 

Holman J made it plain at the outset and repeatedly, that he was not approaching the case in a narrow “nothing else will do” manner, due to the recent authorities, but in weighing everything up as to what order would best meet the child’s needs throughout their lifetime.

 

 

The legal framework as I have so far described it is agreed by all the advocates in the case, including that I must apply all the relevant parts of section 1 of the Act. In their written skeleton arguments and written final submissions, as well as in their brief oral final submissions, there has been some debate between the advocates as to whether, in applying section 1, I should adopt the approach that I should only make an adoption order if “nothing else will do”. This led to some brief examination of the judgments of the Supreme Court in Re B (a child) [2013] UKSC 33, and some later judgments of the Court of Appeal in which that court appears to have been exercised by what the Supreme Court actually meant by what they said in Re B (most recently the judgments delivered by the Court of Appeal only two weeks ago on 18 November 2014 in CM v Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council [2014] EWCA Civ 1479).

 

In my view that is a debate and territory into which I need not and should not enter. The legal and factual situations in those cases were different. In the present case, the child has already been lawfully and appropriately placed for adoption with A and B for over a year. A range of rights under Article 8 of the ECHR is engaged. There is a continuing legal relationship between the child and his paternal genetic family, with whom he has a father, grandmother, aunts, uncles and a paternal half sibling, but no current psychological relationship. He has never met any of them. (He also has several cousins but they are outside the definition of “relative” in section 144 (1) of the Act.) In this case the child unquestionably also has a private and family life and a home with A and B, and they with him, for which all three of them have the right to respect under Article 8. With so many Article 8 rights engaged and in competition, it does not seem to me to be helpful or necessary in the present case to add a gloss to section 1 of only making an adoption order if “nothing else will do”. (Indeed Mr Nicholas Power might have argued on behalf of A and B, but wisely chose not to do so, that there could now be no interference with the Article 8 rights as between A and B and C mutually except if “necessary” within the meaning of Article 8(2).) Rather, I should simply make the welfare of the child throughout his life the paramount consideration; consider and have regard to all the relevant matters listed in section 1(4) and any other relevant matters; and make an adoption order if, but only if, doing so “would be better for the child than not doing so”, as section 1(6) requires. If the balance of factors comes down against making an adoption order, then clearly I should not make one. If they are so evenly balanced that it is not possible to say that making an adoption order would be “better” for him than not doing so, then I should not do so. If, however, the balance does come down clearly in favour of making an adoption order, then, in the circumstances of this case, I should make one. I do not propose to add some additional hurdle or test of “nothing else will do”.

 

 

 

The parties had all drawn up balance sheets, and the Judge said something that I find very helpful when looking at balance sheets.

 

I have read and re-read those “balance sheets” and all the written closing submissions, and I have all the points listed there in mind. Judges frequently use the language of “balance” and “balance sheets” (and I do myself. I think lists such as the above are indeed very helpful). But the analogy with balancing scales may be misleading. When weights or objects are put on either side of a scale, their individual precise weights are known, or ascertainable. You can put four objects in one scale pan and seven in the other, and the scales will come down one way or the other due to the aggregate of the individual precise and ascertainable weights on each side. In a case such as this, however, none of the factors have precise weights. All that may be said of any individual factor is that, as a matter of judgment, it is more or less important or weighty than another. Mr Power’s list is long on the advantages of adoption and short on the disadvantages. It is not, however, the number of factors which counts but their respective importance. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 does not itself use the language of balance. It requires the court to “have regard to” all relevant matters, including those specifically referred to in section 1(4). The effect of section 1(6) is that the court must then make a judgment (applying section 1(2) and the paramountcy of welfare throughout the child’s life) whether making (in this case) an adoption order “would be better for the child than not doing so.”

 

 

 

I often read judgments from the High Court and thank my lucky stars that I am not, and never will be a Judge called upon to decide between two impossible situations. This was one of those occasions.

 

My condensing of this judgment is not, and could not be, a fair reflection of the deliberation that the Judge undertook. I would urge you to read the whole judgment to get a proper reflection of the complexities of this matter.

 

Nonetheless, you want to know the outcome, and I need to give it to you, so that debate can occur.

 

 

This case clearly requires taking both a short term and a long term view. C is currently very well placed with “perfect adopters”. They are a well trained couple with whom he is very well attached. He is of mixed race. They are both white and share with him that half of his ethnicity. A and B are “tried and tested” as has been said. His aunt and the principal members of the paternal family are black and share with him that half of his ethnicity. The aunt is a single person. She has not been “tried and tested” as a carer for C, but she has been observed as a carer of her own child, G, and thoroughly assessed as entirely suitable to care long term for C. There would be likely to be short, and possibly long term harm if he now moves from A and B to the aunt, but that is mitigated by his embedded security and attachments with A and B, and can be further mitigated by specialist training and support for the aunt, which she will gladly accept. The unquantifiable but potentially considerable advantage of a move to the aunt is the bridge to the paternal original family.

 

It is my firm judgment and view that it is positively better for C not to be adopted but to move to the aunt. In any event, I certainly do not consider that making an adoption order would be better for C than not doing so. Accordingly I must, as I do, determine not to make an adoption order and must dismiss the adoption application. Pursuant to section 24(4) of the Act, I exercise a discretion to revoke the placement order made in respect of the child on 2 August 2013.

 

The care order made on 2 August 2013 now once again has effect. Rotherham, in whose care C again now is, must engage intensively with all the relevant parties, and file and circulate within three weeks a written care plan setting out their plan for C and how they will implement, in the least damaging way, the process of his move from A and B to the aunt. It is impossible for me or any court to micro-manage that plan and process, and inconsistent with the respective roles and duties of the local authority and the court that I or the court should attempt to do so. If (as I sincerely hope will not be the case) any further resort to the court is necessary, application must be made locally to the designated family judge in Sheffield. A copy of this judgment must be given to, and read by, the Independent Reviewing Officer and all social workers having any continuing role with these families.

 

I have found this decision extremely painful, for I sincerely and deeply appreciate the intense grief it will cause to A and B and to their extended families and friends. But I have not, in the end, found it difficult; and, as I said at the outset of this judgment, it is not one which I reach narrowly or marginally. At the directions hearing in Leeds, when I had read few of the papers (and there were several key documents still to come) and before I had heard any of the oral evidence or argument, I described this as a finely balanced case. By the end, I do not think that it is. I am clear that the welfare of C throughout his life decisively requires that he is not adopted but moves to live with the aunt. It is my duty to make that welfare paramount.

 

 

 

There are a lot of very fact specific components to this case – it is unlikely that another case with exactly these issues will ever appear again. So it is not a definitive ruling for anything other than a case with these particular facts.

 

Nonetheless it is

 

 

  • The first successfully opposed adoption that I have seen since the 2002 Act came into being (and I didn’t find any reported ones going back to the 1976 Act, though I could have missed them)

And

 

  • Potentially significant – here, the assertions of mother and Mr E that Mr E was the father was accepted, and a true father emerged later. That particular set of circumstances (stripped of all of the ethnic features and clandestine affairs) is probably not that unusual. Local Authorities and Courts are somewhat dependent on a mother telling them that there is more than one putative father. Will we see successful challenges to adoption on that narrower aspect? Will we see Courts being more inclined to DNA test putative fathers even where mother is saying that there is only one putative father?

Succeeding in an opposed adoption

 

 
There are cases – you can see them in law reports, read about them in the newspapers and sometimes see them for yourself, when a Local Authority seeks a Placement Order with a plan to adopt a child and the Court says no. {Just looking at the Bailii reports of county court cases since 22nd April, I can find three of those}

You can also see cases where the first Court says yes, and the Court of Appeal say no, and the Placement Order and the plan of adoption is stymied. So parents can and do, successfully fight PLANS for adoption.

 

What about when the plan is approved and the Court makes the Placement Order that allows the child to be placed with prospective adopters?

Once the Placement Order is made, a parent can apply for leave to revoke the Placement Order – to get the child back if the application to revoke is successful.

Since the Adoption and Children Act 2002, I have not personally experienced a successful application for revocation of a placement order by a parent, nor have I ever read about one in a newspaper. Nor have I been able to find one in the law reports. I have found some cases where LEAVE was given, but not any that ultimately ended up with the child coming home.

If the child is placed with prospective adopters, and they make an application for adoption, the parent may apply for leave to oppose the adoption application. Up until Re B-S was decided last year, the only reported case where that leave had been given to a parent had been immediately appealed.

That’s because pre Re B-S, the test was that the Court should follow a “stringent approach” and that it would be only in “exceptionally rare circumstances that these applications would be granted”

[That, in practice seemed to be “exceptionally rare” in the sense that a unicorn is exceptionally rare, rather than in the sense that a Cabinet minister is sacked sense of exceptionally rare]

In Re B-S though, the Court of Appeal decided that that was not on – Parliament had set out in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 that there was a remedy allowing a parent to oppose an adoption order under s47(5) of the Act, and if that was to be a real remedy rather than a merely illusory one, there had to be cases where leave would be given. The Court of Appeal decided that the mere fact that a child was placed with adopters and would be potentially unsettled was not enough to defeat a leave to oppose application, and if the parent demonstrated some ‘solidity’ to their case, it would be right to grant them leave and let them oppose the adoption.

Since then, a higher proportion of leave to oppose applications have been successful (or successful appeals after original refusals). But have any of them actually resulted in the parent getting their child back?

Since the 2002 Act, I have not found a single law report that shows a parent successfully opposing the adoption order and getting the child back. I have seen cases that could be counted on the fingers of one hand of opposition to adoption orders that resulted in the child remaining with the prospective adopters under a different form of order.

The closest anyone had come in a reported case (up until now) was in Re W (Adoption Order :Set aside and leave to oppose) 2010 [2011] 1 FLR 2153

In which a mother had not been served with the adoption application, despite telling the social workers that she wanted to fight it, and she persuaded the Court of Appeal that it was right to set aside the adoption order But the Court of Appeal then went on to decide that she failed in her application for leave to oppose, and that there would thus be an unopposed application for adoption, which of course would succeed. That’s about as pyrrhic a victory as one can imagine.
In fact, if you want to find the answer to the question “What happens to the child if a Court refuse the adoption application?” the case that answers it is from 1960 (which is two sets of Adoption legislation ago – the answer NOW is that the Care Order comes back into force, so unless the Court discharge the care order or make the new equivalent of a Residence Order, the adoption won’t go ahead but that doesn’t automatically mean the child will come home)
This raises two big questions for me

1. Where does that leave the Court of Appeal’s statement in Re B-S that parliament intended there to be a real remedy in s47 for a parent to fight an adoption application, rather than a merely illusory one?

AND

2. How can a parent’s opposition to an adoption order be said to have solidity, if nobody has ever succeeded in opposing one?

 

If in twelve years, no parent has successfully fought an adoption application and got their child back, is the whole concept of contested adoption really just an illusion, and moreover, an illusion that causes further pain and suffering to a parent, anxiety to the prospective adopters and takes up Court time that we can ill afford?
Those questions are thrown into sharp focus by this High Court decision that I am finally getting around to.

Borough of Poole v W and Another 2014

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1777.html

This judgment was delivered by Sir Mark Hedley, in the High Court in April 2014. I will say, before we begin, that if I happened to be representing a parent in the High Court, the Judge I would be praying for would have been Hedley – you cannot have a more kindly and sympathetic tribunal. It would be a dream start.

In this case, the Judge had given leave to oppose the adoption application for a child SR, and thus this is one of the rare reported contested adoption judgments.

SR was 2 ½ years old. She had been removed shortly after birth, there having been care proceedings and adoptions of her older siblings. A Care Order with a plan of adoption and Placement Order was made – the parents appealed that decision and were unsuccessful. SR was placed with prospective adopters in November 2012 and her direct contact with her parents ceased.

The adoption application was made and the parents were granted leave to oppose.

[I note in passing that the Judge refers extensively in his judgment to 2011 caselaw, but does not touch upon Re B or Re B-S – no doubt these formed a major part of his judgment to grant leave to oppose]

“Although the final legal burden on the prospective adopters remains unchanged, the parents, according to Re W have a significant evidential burden of laying solid grounds of opposition to what has already been planned and approved by the court. I mentioned at the end of the hearing that I thought, this being, I think, the first case at full trial after the bout of cases in the Court of Appeal, that it would be proper normally to provide a written judgment so that others could see how the process works out”

[There has of course been the judgment in the opposed adoption case of Re N (A Child : Adoption Order) 2014 – but in that case, the father was not seeking the return of the child but to persuade the Court to make a Special Guardianship Order instead of an adoption order https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/05/10/special-guardianship-versus-adoption/ ]
Coming back then to the essence of this case, all parties agreed that there were probably three factual questions that the court had to ask and answer. First, would SR survive the rehabilitation process? If yes, secondly, would the parents survive the rehabilitation process? If yes, thirdly, would they produce parenting consistent with the needs of SR over the balance of her childhood? It seems to me, in a case such as this, it is always best to start by looking at things as they will appear to the child herself. All the adult analysis and debate and arcane recital of authority is wholly incomprehensible to her. The world, so far as she is concerned, looks very different. She was removed from her parents after two weeks at hospital. However, unlike the other children, she had had no adverse parental experience this being, as it were, a likelihood of harm case, rather than a harm case. From the 4th August 2011 to about the 19th November 2012 she was placed with a foster carer called Karen, to whom she clearly became securely attached over that period of time. Moreover during that time, she had what I am content to accept, was positive experience of parental contact. Her life changed dramatically on the 19th November 2012 because she had to break that secure attachment and re-form it with people who were, in effect, strangers to her. There is no doubt that she had some difficulties with that. There is no doubt they were only the kind of difficulties that anyone would have expected and there is no doubt that they were substantially overcome. As far as she is concerned, the last parental contact she had was a lifetime away and since then she has settled down and made her home and family with the prospective adopters. Her parents will perforce now be strangers to her. She has only one home and only one world and that includes, as everybody recognises it would include whatever happens to her, the extended family of those who care for her.
Looking at the change in the parents since the Placement Order had been made, these were considerable – in fact, this bit is quite remarkable – in effect their former social worker was their McKenzie Friend. That’s not something I’ve ever come across before and may never see again.
They have been assisted throughout by Mr Levers, who is a retired social worker, indeed was once social worker to this family, but that had ceased before any legal proceedings here started. He has manifestly, with his wife, been a tower of strength to the parents throughout these proceedings. He has afforded not just litigation but personal support and I am entirely satisfied that such support would continue unabated into the future, whether it is in supporting the parents in renewing their care of the child or supporting them in their grief in being deprived of the opportunity of doing that.
The changes they had made are delineated

If we come up to today’s date, everybody accepts that the parents are in a very different position indeed to the one that they were in, in July 2011 or indeed October 2012. They enrolled themselves in university courses at the Greenwich Business School at its Greenford Campus in West London. They have set up their own home in Hayes in West London, having moved up from Dorset and they have established for themselves all the appearances of a stable lifestyle in which studies are accommodated and part-time work ensures both that they have control of money and also their ability to live independently. Moreover, the mother has completed and benefitted from therapies which were designed to address the emotional dysfunction which she recognised she had. The father has clearly benefited from involvement in a domestic violence course and the very fact that he saw it through is good grounds for optimism and it has been not without its benefits to him. Both the parents are able to give an articulate and compelling account of the progress that they have made. Both parents acknowledge the need for further work if so advised, both in respect of couple counselling and in the respect of the mother for some more individual work
What then are the concerns that were raised in particular in the expert evidence about the parents? The expert evidence consisted of the clinical psychologist and an independent social worker, both of whom have provided extensive written reports and gave oral evidence at this hearing before me. Both of them acknowledge the parents have made very substantial progress since they, the experts, first dealt with them when they, the experts, were recommending the permanent removal of the older children. Both experts, in their written evidence at least, concluded that if the parents have another child, whilst an assessment may be needed, the child should not be removed from them while such an assessment took place, though it is only right to record that in this, as in pretty well every other matter of which she spoke, the psychologist became increasingly cautious as she gave oral evidence. However, said the experts, the real progress that has been made is not enough to justify attempting a rehabilitation of this child at this time. They contend that much work remains to be done. The psychologist in oral evidence, though I am not sure she had said it in her report, said that some of that work, quite a lot of it, would have to take place before a rehabilitation started. They both said that it was really impossible to assess the real risks involved in rehabilitation without there being some significant contact which could be observed and evaluated. Of course, everybody in the case accepts that contact is simply impracticable unless and until an order has been made refusing the adoption. Those of course are all matters that I must take into account. I was left with the impression, and I do not assert this because it was only an impression, that the psychologist became increasingly cautious once she realised that serious consideration was actually being given to the case that the parents were seeking to advance.

Now, there are two other matters which have been universally advanced as grounds for concern about the parents. The first of those is a failure by the parents to accept their responsibilities for what has happened in the past. Now, I am ready to accept that there is something in this concern because it is clear to me that they do not accept the full implications of Judge Bond’s judgment of the 1st July 2011. However, they have, by what they have done, shown a real awareness of deficiencies in their own parenting and personalities. They have demonstrated a serious commitment to the cause of endeavouring to improve themselves and I think I am not as troubled as others by their failure, as it were, to make unmitigated confession in respect of everything that has occurred. I am not saying there is not something in it, but the something that is in it that may be truly significant, is a failure to appreciate just how far they would have had to travel to get from the 1st July 2011 to the place where rehabilitation could begin. Secondly, it is said that they have failed to work honestly and openly with professionals. I fully accept, as I think do they, that there have been some examples of that but that needs to be qualified I think by two other observations. The first is that they have certainly not been amiss at making admissions contrary to their own interests from time to time during the course of these proceedings. How otherwise could they have, as it were, done what they have done to demonstrate a commitment to improvement? Secondly, I think they and the social worker were placed in a next to impossible position by a family placement and adoption officer being left with the responsibility for dealing with a case which was, in fact, all about a removal and rehabilitation. Adoption and placement officers have a very distinctive role to perform, which is based on the assumption that a decision has already been made that adoption is in the best interests of the child and their role is to procure that end. The social worker was being asked to do something that was completely counterintuitive and I am not surprised that she and the parents found relationships in those circumstances difficult. Nothing turns on this, in my judgment, but it was canvassed in the evidence so I think I ought to express the view that I attach no significance whatever to anything that was or was not said in the last interview between the social worker and the parents. If the purpose of an interview is to establish evidence it has to be properly noted at the time. I thought we had all learnt that by 1984 at the latest and, of course, if that is not the purpose and there are other purposes well of course nobody has to sit there poring over notebooks, but it was being used as though that were the purpose of the interview and it was wholly inadequate to achieve that end.

I recognise that there would be some risk of the parents being less than fully candid with a professional. However, it seems to me that the whole history of the case viewed in the round encourages one to the view that they would be in relation to things that really mattered and that such a risk, if all other things were equal, would be a risk worth accepting

 

That left the Court in a very difficult position

Everybody agrees that there are only two possible outcomes in this case. Either an adoption order is made with resultant devastation to the parents and their families or a rehabilitation order is made with subsequent devastation to innocent prospective adopters who took this child under a placement order without a hint, so far as they were concerned, that the thing could ever blow up on them.
Therefore, those seem to be the choices that confront the court and I must evaluate those with care, bearing in mind both the lifelong perspective required by Section 1(2), and also that this is not a choice in any real sense. This is a case in which an adoption order will only be made if only an adoption order will meet the welfare needs of this child and that the welfare needs of this child requires an adoption order be made. I evaluate it bearing in mind what Thorpe LJ said about the last hurdle being the highest, but I also bear in mind that at the end of the day, the legal burden to establish adoption lies not on the parents but on the prospective adopters.
I think, because it was clear how difficult a dilemma this was for the Judge, it would be fair to set out his conclusions in full rather than to condense them. I will simply say that if THESE parents were unable to succeed in opposing an adoption, before THIS Judge, I am not sure when (or indeed if) I will ever see a successfully opposed adoption. [I think it is something of a shame that Lady Hale’s “nothing else will do” formulation does not come into this exercise, because framed in that way, it is possible that a different conclusion might have been reached – it is almost impossible to say]

Therefore, let me start with my consideration of the merits and demerits of the rehabilitative process. I am satisfied that the parents have been committed to the concept of self-improvement. I can see the basis on which they say that they have achieved all that has been asked of them, but of course I have to remind myself that it is where you start that determines how far you have to go and doing all that you reasonably can may not in fact be to do enough. I need to remember, in the context of rehabilitation, where SR is at now, where the parents are at now and the full implications of what is involved in working out rehabilitation. Thus, if it were successful the child would grow up with the natural parents in settings in which the vast majority of children grow up and I recognise that it was always going to be the case that whichever choice the court made in this case, SR was going to grow up separate and apart from B, M and H. On the other hand, if the rehabilitation were unsuccessful, everybody agrees that would be a disaster for SR. Of course, no one can actually predict what would happen if the rehabilitation were unsuccessful but all the realistic possible outcomes merit the description ‘disaster’, so far as SR is concerned. Hence, the three questions that emerged. Would SR survive rehabilitation? Would the parents survive rehabilitation? Can the parents provide the necessary ongoing care for the next 15 and 16 years? Let us come to those questions in the context of considering rehabilitation. Would SR survive rehabilitation? Well, the short answer is nobody can give a confident answer to that because there can be no contact and because nobody would have any choice but simply to see what happened when you tried it. Secondly, it will of course be a second breaking of secure attachments and an attempt to make a third set of attachments. It would involve the burning of all boats, because the prospective adopters would not be available to her, in the light of a breakdown in rehabilitation and she would have to start all over again. It would mean a move to two people, i.e. the parents, who I think are emotionally more fragile that the prospective adopters and it would involve assessing that risk in the context of consequence. A modest risk that involves a serious consequence, should it come about, will invite much greater caution than the wider risk for which the consequences are predictable and manageable. This very firmly comes in the first of those categories. I confess to having very real fears for SR, should this process happen because, although the risk of failure is by no means certain, it is clearly real and the consequences are so serious.

The second question, would the parents survive the rehabilitative process? I have more confidence in that. Even if they underestimate the possible difficulties involved, they do appreciate that seriously troubled waters would lie ahead and they are willing to relocate and they are committed to the process, so that were SR to survive the process, then it seems to me it would be fair to conclude that the parents probably would. However, that then leaves the third question: would the parents provide ongoing care throughout this child’s childhood? The parents are confident that they could and I fully accept that that expression of confidence is genuine, in that it reflects what they feel and believe. I have to confess, however, that I do not fully share that confidence, partly because of their emotional fragility and partly because of their unknown capacity to react to what may be wholly unpredictable and quite irrational demands and responses of an upset child. This is a radically different state of affairs from dealing with a new baby, as we are dealing with a child that is attempting to make, and putting at risk, the third set of attachments in the first five years of her life. My confidence is inevitably dented by the gravity of the consequences of it all going wrong.

Now, what are the merits and demerits of adoption? Well, the demerits are clear enough. She will be deprived of being brought up, as the vast majority of children are brought up, by their own parents. That can lead, I fully recognise, to issues both in adolescent and adulthood because a child who will know what the background is will know that they are not being brought up in the way in which children are usually brought up. On the other hand, one has to recognise that a placement of a child of this age who has good attachments to the prospective adopters will, in the overwhelming number of cases, lead to at least a satisfactory outcome of family life. Now, of course, you can have both at the same time. You can have a satisfactory outcome with all the issues that adoption can raise in adolescence and adulthood and the fact that they have been brought up differently. The two are by no means exclusive and one has to consider them all together.

Having as it were, looked at the respective merits of the approaches, let me stand back and review all this through the prism of Section 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. I remind myself that subsection (2) requires that the paramount consideration of the court must be the child’s welfare, throughout her life. I am anxious when I reread subsection (3) which says, ‘The court must at all times bear in mind that, in general, any delay in coming to the decision is likely to prejudice the children’s welfare.’ Well, it was once pointed out in the past that SR had been involved in litigation for the whole of her life after the first fortnight and that remains as true today as it was then. Mercifully, for one reason or another, she will not be conscious of the litigation that goes on at some distance from her own awareness, though she will be deeply conscious, if not able to articulate, the fact that she has had two moves, three homes during the course of her life, if you include the first fortnight as one of them, which I do.

So far as Section 1(4) is concerned it seems to me that the key aspects of it in this case are the child’s particular needs, in terms of security and stability, having regard to her life experiences to date and the child’s age, which has the effect of making it impossible for her to understand the adult world in which her future is caught up or to explain to that adult world the effect that that is having on her. I used the expression earlier that we are likely to see unpredictable and apparently irrational demands being made by a child who has no other capacity to communicate when distressed or confused by what is going on around her. There are two other aspects. First, one must consider the harm that she is at risk of suffering; that is entirely, in my judgment in this case, associated with the risk from a breakdown in rehabilitation and the emotional harm that will be occasioned by that. It would not however be right to part with the matter without, secondly, considering the requirements of subsection 1(4)(f) which provides as follows:

‘The relationship which the child has with relatives and with any other person in relation to whom the court considers the relationship to be relevant, including the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so, the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives or any such person to provide the child with a secure environment, in which the child can develop or otherwise meet the child’s needs and the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives or any such person regarding the child.’
Now, that is drawn in very wide terms simply because adoption can arise out of a whole concatenation of circumstances which bear little or no relationship to one another, as between one case and another. However, it seems to me in the context of this case that the court, as part of the welfare and the judgment is to take account of the fact that we have parents who are willing to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop or otherwise meet the child’s needs and what is in question is not their willingness but their ability to do so and that seems to me a matter on which the court should reflect. Secondly, the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives regarding the child. I have only cursory evidence as to the input of the extended family but it is enough to suggest to me that the parents when they speak, speak with the support of their families and that therefore the wishes and feelings of the extended families and the parents are properly to be taken into account. The parents have demonstrated a commitment to the child which entitles them to have their wishes and feelings considered. Therefore, in my review of all this through the prism of Section 1, I have reminded myself of the need for a lifelong perspective. I have reminded myself I am dealing with a child with particular needs, in terms of stability and security. I have reminded myself that I am dealing with a child too young to understand the adult affairs that surround her and in which she is inevitably caught up. I remind myself that a breakdown in rehabilitation would, on anyone’s account, give rise to a risk of suffering harm and I have taken close account, I hope, of the ability and willingness of parents to provide for her and their wishes and feelings about that happening.

I have considered this case with the most anxious care, considering how much is at stake, both for parents and prospective adopters who happily all have a real understanding of each other’s predicaments. However, above all what is at stake for SR? There can be no blame attached to any of the four adults for why we have all ended up where we have. Nevertheless, a decision of profound significance has to be made. In the end, I have reached a clear conclusion that there is only one route which will sufficiently safeguard the welfare of SR and that is the route of adoption. My real concerns about SR’s ability to survive the process of rehabilitation and the parents’ ability to sustain her care, whatever her reactions throughout her childhood, when seen in the context of their fragility and of the consequences to SR of a failure of rehabilitation and the need to then start all over again. All those matters when drawn together, in my judgment, require that adoption be provided as the way of securing her welfare and therefore require that the court dispenses with the parents’ consent. In making the order which, in my judgment, promotes the welfare of SR, I fully recognise the grief of the parents who do not share my view and I recognise that I have no comfort to offer them, beyond letterbox contact. If ever an example was needed of how legitimate and heartfelt aspirations of parents can be trumped by the welfare needs of the child, this surely is it. That said, those are the orders that I propose to make.

Special Guardianship versus adoption

 

 

 
Ever since Re B-S, there has been a potential issue for the Courts to resolve – given that Re B-S talks about the test in leave to oppose being not about whether a parent might get the child back necessarily but about whether the Court might make an order OTHER THAN Adoption, with the test for making an adoption order still being ‘nothing else will do’ – what happens if a parent invites the Court to leave the child in the placement, but make a Special Guardianship Order rather than an adoption order?

Why does it matter? Well, if you are a prospective adopter about to commit to taking on a child, you might need to know that you might not get to adopt the child after all, if you are someone who already has a child placed with them that you were intending to adopt, it might be that you will end up with an SGO instead, and if you are a birth parent who wants to stop the adoption happening you would want to know whether the Courts are going to entertain (even in cases where you can’t persuade them to return your child) making a less drastic order than adoption. Also important for Judges dealing with those cases, social workers planning for the future for children, lawyers advising clients and politicians making policy about adoption.  As even the President of the Family Division has recently acknowledged, there’s a tension between the direction of travel of Government (social workers should stop thinking of adoption as a last resort) and the Courts (adoption is still a last resort, even way after the Court have already decided it is in the child’s best interests to approve a plan of adoption)

So this is the first case that rolls up its sleeves and gets under the bonnet of the issue, the High Court have just dealt with exactly such a scenario. I wrote about the hearing that decided that the father should be given LEAVE to oppose the adoption order here

https://suesspiciousminds.com/2014/02/14/re-b-s-can-itself-be-the-significant-change-of-circumstances/

And this is now the judgment from the contested adoption case itself.
Re N (A child) Adoption Order 2014
http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2014/1491.html

The Judge in this case concluded that an adoption order was preferable for this child than SGO, weighing the pros and cons of each type of order, and bearing in mind that adoption could not be sanctioned unless “nothing else will do”

46. I accept that adoption does have the disadvantage of severing the legal tie between N and her paternal family. In every other respect it is the preferable order to make in this exceptional case. Some of these reasons for adoption are so important that they lead me inexorably to the conclusion that it is the only order that can be made. In any event, the combination of all these factors is overwhelming such that it is abundantly clear that nothing else will do. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of the order, adoption is necessary and proportionate given the huge advantages that it provides to N for the rest of her life.
47. I have formed the view that an adoption order is overwhelmingly necessary. N has only ever known one home. She has significant special needs. She is a vulnerable child. She will become a vulnerable adult. She has received a very high quality of care from the Applicants. She has thrived with them. She now needs the security, trust and confidence of being made a permanent legal member of their family such that the Applicants will be fully and solely responsible for her needs throughout her life.

He sets out clearly that the Court WOULD have jurisdiction to make an SGO rather than adoption order (and to do so even where the prospective adopters didn’t WANT an SGO)
32. the key question which the court will be obliged to ask itself in every case in which the question of adoption as opposed to special guardianship arises will be which order will better serve the welfare of this particular child. It seems clear to me, however, that this must be subject to the law as set out in Re B that an adoption order is to be made only where nothing else will do. In this regard, it is a material feature of the special guardianship regime that it involves a less fundamental interference with existing legal relationships. I further accept that I have power to impose a special guardianship order on an unwilling party to the proceedings if I am satisfied that, applying the welfare checklist in the 1989 Act, a special guardianship order will best serve the welfare interests of the child concerned
I think the most important part of this judgment will be this line from para 48

I have already indicated that this is an exceptional case. If it were not an exceptional case, I doubt whether an adoption order would have been appropriate

 

(If you listen carefully when you read that sentence you can hear the sound of future litigation – and a lot of it)
The Judge goes on to set out what those exceptional circumstances are, and one can readily see that most of them would not arise in a traditional SGO v adoption case

(a) N’s serious disabilities require a lifelong order rather than a special guardianship order that expires on her 18th birthday. I am satisfied that, regardless of the excellent progress that she has made, she will still be dependent on the Applicants, probably indefinitely and certainly well into her adult life. Many of her disabilities (such as her autism and development delay) have not altered and will not alter notwithstanding her progress in other areas. I am not going to consider in detail the jurisdiction of the Court of Protection after her 18th birthday. The simple fact of the matter is that she needs to have as her legal parents at that point the people who will by then have cared for her exclusively for over 17 years of her life. This is what makes this case so exceptional. Special guardianship simply does not fit the bill in this regard at all. Adoption does. It is necessary and required.
(b) The only home that she has ever known has been with the Applicants. She is embedded emotionally into their family but she needs to be embedded legally there as well. This is as important for her as it is for the Applicants and their son. I accept that she does not and probably never will understand the legal concept of adoption but she does understand the concept of being a full member of a family. It is overwhelmingly in her interests that she is a full member of this family as a matter of law. In short, she must have permanence and total security there. Adoption is the only order that will give her that permanence and security.
(c) Whilst I look at this entirely from the perspective of N, the position of the Applicants is a very relevant consideration. They have invested an enormous commitment into N. They need to know that her presence with them is complete and not susceptible to challenge. If that were not the case, I consider there is a real possibility that it might have an adverse impact on the welfare of N. This would not be because the Applicants would not remain fully committed to her but the uncertainty and potential concerns as to what might be around the corner and what problems they may encounter when she attains her majority have a real potential to cause difficulties for N herself.
(d) I am very concerned about the litigation that has taken place in this case. Litigation is a real concern for carers at the best of times. This litigation has been going on for over five years at an intense level. I have not heard oral evidence from the Father and Paternal Grandmother but I do have a real concern that a special guardianship order would not be the end of the battle. The Father’s statement talks about unsupervised contact, staying contact and even contact in Nigeria. In one sense it is understandable why he makes such comments. I am, however, concerned that he has not fully come to terms with being ruled out as a carer. Mr Macdonald’s submissions reinforce that concern in so far as they repeatedly refer to there being no threshold findings having been made against him. The risk of ongoing continuing litigation with no understanding of the effect of that on N’s carers is something that this court must consider in deciding on the appropriate order.
(e) N has never lived with her Father or her Paternal Grandmother. There is no family member available to care for her. The Father and Paternal Grandmother have been ruled out and their appeal in that regard was dismissed. N has only ever had supervised contact to them. This is not to downplay their importance. It is merely a fact. It is accepted by the Applicants that the Father and the Paternal Grandmother are a vital part of N’s heritage. They are committed to contact. I accept the evidence that this is a genuine commitment that will not be reconsidered once they have adopted N. They have shown their attitude clearly by setting up contact with N’s mother’s other children. It follows that adoption in this particular case will not stop contact from continuing with the parental birth family. This is important.

 

Breaking them down, the 5 exceptional factors here were

1. The child has serious physical disabilities that will require lifelong care, not just until her 18th birthday
2. The only home she has ever really known is with the prospective adopters
3. The enormous effort and commitment that the prospective adopters have put into the care of this child
4. That this child has been the subject of intense litigation for 5 years and making an SGO would probably see that continue in the future
5. That the father has never cared for the child and that the evidence is plain that he would never be able to

But even in this case, the Court was plain that ongoing contact (four times per year) would be necessary, though the Court declined to make a contact order on the basis that the adopters were in agreement with that plan for contact.

It seems, therefore, that in a contested adoption hearing where the parents have as either their primary position or a fallback position – there should be an SGO rather than an adoption order, there is a live issue to be tried. (and if that’s the case, if a parent actually puts forward that argument rather than straight ‘give me the child back’, their application for leave to oppose must surely have some solidity and the prospect of being granted?)

Most parents, of course, will want to oppose the adoption order on the basis of the child coming back to their care – obviously that’s what they want. But those who take up the fallback position of “Even if not, an SGO is better than adoption, because adoption is the last resort” have a case that would be tricky to throw out at leave stage.