The last time the Court of Appeal really grappled with the test on leave to oppose adoption it was Re BS 2013, which some of you may, just may, have heard of.
So it was with some trepidation that I read this case
M (A Child: Leave To Oppose Adoption)  EWCA Civ 404 (18 April 2023)
A few big things arising from it :-
Firstly that the Court of Appeal say that in all cases where a Placement Order or Care Order is made, the Local Authority should obtain at its own expense a transcript of judgment and share with the parties. There is no analysis in this paragraph as to why, given the importance of the transcript to all, that the costs should not be shared between the LA and legal aid agency. I don’t know if this was the subject of argument, but it obviously places a substantial additional expense on LA budgets – luckily at a time when the Government coffers are very much overflowing and they are desperate to get all of that surplus money out to Local Authorities, whose biggest problem with that are building extensions to the Scrooge McDuck-esque swimming pool of gold coins that are presently too small.
Transcripts of judgment in placement order proceedings
A decision to approve adoption as a child’s care plan is of huge importance to the child, to the birth family and to the adoptive family. The reasons for the decision will appear in a judgment or in justices’ reasons and are likely to be of interest or importance to anyone concerned with the child. They may also be important to the child in later life. There is therefore a duty on the court and on the local authority to ensure that the record is preserved. Considering the amount of care and expense that will have been invested in the proceedings, that seems elementary.
A further reason for creating a record of the reasons for a placement order is that the order may not be the end of the litigation about the child. The court may have to consider an application for permission to apply to revoke the order or an application for permission to oppose the making of an adoption order. In this situation, it may be difficult to deal with the application fairly without sight of the judgment that was made at the time of the placement order. In particular, as my Lady, Lady Justice Macur noted in Re S (A Child)  EWCA Civ 605 at  a transcript provides the baseline against which to assess whether there has been a change in circumstances.
Accordingly in my view, when giving reasons for making a placement order, the court should always order the local authority to obtain a transcript of its judgment, unless it has handed down a written version or made arrangements for there to be an agreed and approved note. The same applies in cases where a final care order is made, though that is not the focus of this appeal.
Anyway, that’s done now – get transcripts in all cases with placement orders or care orders (though you may remember that the transparency guidance was that that Judges should publish all such judgments on bailii – and that seems to be a custom honoured in the breach more than the observance and would have rendered this moot)
Second is the refined test
I would therefore state the essential questions for the court when it decides an application for leave to oppose the making of an adoption order in this way:
- Has there been a change in circumstances since the placement order was made?
- If so, taking account of all the circumstances and giving paramount consideration to this child’s lifelong welfare, should the court revisit the plan for adoption that it approved when making the placement order?
More detail on the two limbs later
Third is the continuing judicial equivalent of a Wikipedia edit war, where the Court of Appeal give a decision, Mostyn J then gives a decision ‘correcting it’ and the Court of Appeal then overturn the Mostyn J decision though not on an appeal of that case but just the next time a case comes up that refers to it. (see earlier post today)
In this case, it is the decision by Mostyn J that a ‘change of circumstances’ has to mean something that wasn’t present or foreseen/foreseeable at the time.
I also reject the suggestion that the change must be unexpected or unforeseen. This proposition was advanced in obiter dicta in the decisions in Prospective Adopters v SA  EWHC 327 (Fam) at [16-19] and in Prospective Adopters v London Borough of Tower Hamlets  EWFC 26 at . In the earlier case, Mostyn J stated:
“Obviously the words “a change in circumstances” are not intended to be read literally. As soon as the placement order is made circumstances will change if only by the effluxion of time. What Parliament clearly contemplated was proof of an unexpected change in the basic facts and expectations on which the court relied when it made the placement order.”
While in the later case he added:
“Obviously, changes that were clearly either foreseen or which were foreseeable at the time of the original order cannot qualify. Otherwise, the provision would be just another variation power.”
This approach finds no support in Re P, something that Mostyn J addressed in Re SA at :
“Re P did not however address the question which I have identified namely whether the change in circumstances should be unexpected. In my judgment, in the absence of a specific reference by Parliament to actually foreseen changes (in contrast to section 14(2)(a) of the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act 1970) the changes in question must be unexpected and must exclusively attach to the basic facts and expectations which underpinned the initial order.”
There are several reasons for rejecting this approach:
(1) The language of the sub-section is simple and there is no reason to gloss it.
(2) In Re SA at  Mostyn J said that he intended to look at the provisions from first principles, but there was no occasion for him to do that. The issue of whether change must be unexpected, unforeseen or unforeseeable (and the concepts are not the same) did not arise in Re SA or in Tower Hamlets. The law had been recently and authoritatively stated in this court’s decisions in Re P and in Re B-S.
(3) The proposition was inspired by an analysis of statutory provisions relating to the court’s power to vary maintenance agreements: Re SA at [17-19]. Those provisions are irrelevant to legislation about the adoption of children. They concern changes of circumstance that occur following bargains made between the parties. The Act concerns placement orders imposed by the court for reasons of child welfare. The proper approach to construction will in each case be conditioned by the very different statutory purposes of these unrelated pieces of legislation.
(4) In the absence of a relevant contrary indication, the only conclusion that can reliably be drawn from the fact that a statute does not say whether a change of circumstances is foreseen or unforeseen is that it can be either. There is also a false logic to the argument that, because Parliament has amended one statute to provide that a change of circumstances may include a foreseen change of circumstances, every statute that does not do the same must mean the opposite.
(5) In the context of the Act, there is no reason whatever to raise the bar by burdening parents with the additional obligation of showing that the changes they rely upon were unexpected or, put another way, to deprive them of the opportunity to rely on changes that were foreseen or foreseeable. As Lord Justice Holroyde observed during argument, that would be very unfair. Expectations are not binary, foresight cannot be calibrated, and there may be a number of future possibilities of varying degrees of likelihood. For example, a parent may say at the placement order hearing that he will achieve sobriety or become drug-free, but the court may not be convinced. If, by the time of the adoption proceedings, he is sober, that cannot sensibly be regarded either as unexpected, unforeseen or unforeseeable simply because it was uncertain or because the alternative was more likely. Why should he be worse off for having achieved something the court foresaw as possible but did not consider probable?
(6) To introduce a requirement relating to expectations would be unworkable and add needless complication to what is no more than a threshold test. When it makes a placement order, the court reaches a conclusion about the need for adoption. It cannot state every expectation it may have for the future, and it cannot know when the adoption application will be made. Trying to decide what was or was not expected, foreseen or foreseeable could only distract from the simple question of whether there has been a change between the facts that existed then and the facts that exist now.
For these reasons, the proposition in Re SA is wrong and should not be followed.
For my part, I can see some sense in Mostyn J’s view, but that’s pretty academic now.
Fourthly, and this is really good news, there’s a change to LASPO which should make it easier for parents to get legal aid to make these applications – HUGE !!
There is further refinement to the second limb of the test, which has always been the much more difficult element to grapple with.
Here the Court of Appeal say that the prospect of success of the opposal to the adoption order being made is an important factor but it is not a test, still less a determinative one.
From this, it can be seen that the prospect of success in opposing adoption if leave is granted is an important element to which the court must have regard, but it is not a test in itself, still less an exclusive one. It is helpful as a reminder that the question to be answered is whether or not there should be an opposed adoption hearing. However, the expressions ‘more than just fanciful’ and ‘solid’ are not true opposites, in that something that is not fanciful may fall short of being solid. This may lead to the court being pressed with different formulations and can cause inconsistency if the court treats prospects of success as the only benchmark.
I also note that there will be cases, of which the present one is an example, where the distinction between opposition to an adoption order and rehabilitation to a parent collapses. That situation will arise, and not uncommonly, where adoption and rehabilitation are the only possible outcomes.
Drawing matters together, I suggest that the essential question for the court at the second stage is this: Taking account of all the circumstances and giving paramount consideration to this child’s lifelong welfare, should the court revisit the plan for adoption that it approved when making the placement order? By asking this question, the court ensures that it focuses firmly on the individual child’s welfare in the short, medium and long term with reference to every relevant factor, including the nature and degree of the change that it has found, the parent’s prospects of success, and the impact on the child of contested proceedings.
In framing the essential question in this way, I do not overlook the fact the parent is seeking leave to oppose the making of this specific adoption order. However, in the great majority of cases, the basis of the proposed opposition is that the child should not be adopted at all. Much less frequently, the opposition may involve an objection to the specific identified adopters, and in those cases, the factors to be taken into account when answering the question will need to be adapted accordingly.
Finally, the application for leave to oppose must be decided on proper evidence but experience confirms that oral evidence is not usually necessary. The court will want to take a broad view of the evidence before it, as befits a decision at the leave stage. There has been a very recent and welcome change to the availability of legal aid for parents making applications to oppose adoption: see Regulation 5 of The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Legal Aid: Family and Domestic Abuse) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2023. This should enhance the fairness of the process and assist the parties and the court to focus on the issues, but at the same time the court must ensure that hearings and timetables are not unduly lengthened.
So the Court of Appeal approved way of looking at the second limb of the test is this
Taking account of all the circumstances and giving paramount consideration to this child’s lifelong welfare, should the court revisit the plan for adoption that it approved when making the placement order?
That seems easier to follow than the previous principle of ‘solidity’ which I must confess I’ve never had a ‘solid’ grasp on.