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Discrimination on grounds of race – assessment of adopters

 

 

 

 

This is a civil case relating to a claim of direct discrimination on the grounds of race by Adopt Berkshire, an adoption agency involved in the assessment, recruitment and approval of adopters.

 

Mander & Anor v Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead & Anor [2019] EWFC B64 (06 December 2019)

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/OJ/2019/B64.html

 

 

 

Mr and Mrs Mander are British citizens, born in Britain and both are of Indian descent. They sought to become adopters and approached Adopt Berkshire to progress this.

 

An adoption social worker met with them and told them that Adopt Berkshire would not be progressing their assessment past the initial visit and that they would not be invited to fill in a form called ROI (Registration of Interest form).  That’s the form that progresses an expression of interest in adoption to starting the assessment process itself. Without that, there’s no assessment and thus no approval and thus no placement of a child.

 

Mr and Mrs Mander say that the social worker, Ms Shirley Popat, told them in terms that this was because they did not meet the racial profile of the children that Adopt Berkshire had available, and specifically that :-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(i) Adopt Berkshire only had white British pre-school children available for adoption;

 

 

 

 

 

(ii) this situation would continue for the foreseeable future;

 

 

 

 

 

(iii) Adopt Berkshire already had a surfeit of white British pre-approved prospective adopters;

 

 

 

 

 

(iv) priority would be given to white British adopters in the placement of these children as they shared the same background; and

 

 

 

 

 

(v) the chances of Adopt Berkshire placing a child with Mr and Mrs Mander were therefore remote.

 

 

 

5.Mr and Mrs Mander say that Ms Popat told them not to be discouraged from adopting entirely, as she saw no reason why they would not be good prospective adopters. She suggested they keep in touch with Adopt Berkshire and try again in a few years in case the situation had changed. She suggested they consider an international adoption from India.

 

 

 

Ms Popat and Adopt Berkshire deny that this was said to Mr and Mrs Mander.  This argument is somewhat shot in the foot, because when Mr and Mrs Mander asked Adopt Berkshire to provide written reasons for not progressing their application, Adopt Berkshire sent this:-

 

 

 

“In making this decision [not to progress you to application stage], we took into account a number of factors including:

 

 

 

 

 

◦the profile of children currently available for placement both locally and nationally;

 

 

 

 

 

◦the fact that in the 17 months since Adopt Berkshire was launched we have not had a single child of Indian or Pakistani heritage referred to us for placement;

 

 

 

 

 

◦the fact that we had recently made contact with a number of local authorities which have significant Indian and Pakistani communities and with several Voluntary Adoption Agencies and they all reported that they had a number of sets of Indian and Pakistani adopters approved and waiting placement but were experiencing a dearth of children requiring placement who would be appropriately culturally placed with these families;

 

 

 

 

 

◦the fact that there are currently many more approved and waiting adoptive families across the U.K who are hoping to achieve the placement of a child/ren of pre-school age than there are children for placement and that this therefore makes it unlikely that a child whose cultural heritage was significantly different to your own would be placed with you.”

 

 

 

7.After acknowledging that the local and national picture may change over time, Ms Loades continued:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…it is hard at the current time to advise you how best to proceed regarding adopting within the U.K.; however another option that you may wish to explore is the option of adopting from India – while this is likely to be a lengthy process and may be financially stretching, it may ultimately be more likely to enable you to achieve the placement of a young child whose cultural heritage is similar to your own”.

 

 

 

If this is different to the alleged oral reasons given, it is in the hair-splitting territory. It is plain that the major (if not sole) reason for not progressing the application to a full assessment of suitability is based on race.  Note that Mr and Mrs Mander were NOT saying that they themselves only wanted to adopt a child of the same ethnicity.

 

Adopt Berkshire confirmed at the hearing that there was nothing in their discussions with Mr and Mrs Mander to suggest that they would not be suitable carers for children or suitable adopters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10.          The Defendants have at all times made clear that there was nothing in Adopt Berkshire’s dealings with Mr and Mrs Mander which suggested that they would not be suitable people to adopt or could not offer a loving and caring home to a child. The Defendants’ witnesses reiterated this in their written and oral evidence.

 

 

 

Mr and Mrs Mander, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission brought an action for direct discrimination on the grounds of race, and also a claim under articles 8, 12 and 14 of the Human Rights Act.

 

 

 

I’ll deal with the HRA aspect first, as that was quite straightforward and was dismissed.

 

 

 

 

 

108.        Mr and Mrs Mander submit that in this case the Defendants by their actions prohibited them from founding a family contrary to Article 12, which was breached in a manner that was not in accordance with the national law as it constituted direct discrimination on the grounds of race contrary to the EA. Further, they claim that because it constituted direct discrimination, it was in breach of Article 14 when read with Article 12.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

109.        Mr and Mrs Mander have not satisfied me that the ambit of Article 12 encompasses the right to found a family by adoption of a child in all circumstances. X v Netherlands specifically holds that it does not, and that it is left to the national law to determine whether, or subject to what conditions, the exercise of the right in such a way should be permitted. Accordingly, to paraphrase Lord Nicholls at [26] of M v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2006] UKHL 11, [2006] 2 WLR 637, [2006] HRLR 19 (cited at [65] of Wilkinson v Kitzinger) the Commission in X v Netherlands is saying that Contracting States are not currently required by the Convention to include within the right to found a family guaranteed by Article 12, the right to adopt a child. That is left to the national law. The manner in which the UK has determined rights relating to adoption is in the statutory framework that it has put in place by way of the 2002 Act, the Children Act, the AAR and the Statutory Guidance, and the remedies for discrimination in relation to the provision of adoption services are found in the EA. Accordingly I accept Miss Foster’s submission for the Defendants that there is no place in this case for a claim of breach of the HRA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

110.        For those reasons I dismiss this element of the claim.

 

 

 

In short, there is not a RIGHT to be able to adopt that is actionable under article 12.

 

 

 

Direct discrimination was, however, the central plank of the case.  Had Mr and Mrs Mander been treated (in the refusal of their wish to be assessed as adopters) in a way that they would not have been treated if they had been white, for example?   (It doesn’t seem too tricky to resolve that, but of course there was a lot of argument, because no adoption agency wants to be labelled as having racially discriminated against someone)

 

 

 

The Court found that the first stage of the claim was made out :-

 

 

 

 

 

79.          Mr and Mrs Mander case is that the Defendants directly discriminated against them by treating them less favourably than they treat or would treat others because of their race, and specifically:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i) From 26 April onwards, refusing to progress Mr and Mrs Mander’s application for approval as prospective adopters, and therefore refusing to permit them access to the adoption service provided by Adopt Berkshire, contrary to section 29(1) EA;

 

 

 

 

 

ii) By terminating the provision of the adoption service provided by Adopt Berkshire to Mr and Mrs Mander on 26 April 2016 contrary to section 29(2)(b) EA;

 

 

 

 

 

iii) By subjecting Mr and Mrs Mander to the following detriments contrary to section 29(2)(c) EA:

 

 

 

 

 

a) informing Mr and Mrs Mander by telephone on 31 March 2016 that they should not bother to apply to be approved to adopt because of their “Indian background”;

 

 

 

 

 

b) from 26 April 2016 refusing to progress their application for approval as potential adoptive parents and refusing to reconsider the reasons for the rejection of their application; and

 

 

 

c) suggesting in the letters of 4th May 2016 and 16 June 2016, that Mr and Mrs Mander should consider adopting from India.

 

 

 

 

 

Finding of prima facie case of direct discrimination

 

 

 

80.          In this case, I am satisfied on the evidence before me that Mr and Mrs Mander have made out a prima facie case of direct discrimination. The basis of the claim is well and contemporaneously documented. There is either no dispute that the acts complained of took place (refusing to progress Mr and Mrs Mander’s interest in adoption, refusing to reconsider their application, suggesting they adopt from India), or Mr and Mrs Mander’s account is not challenged and I have accepted it (informing them by telephone that they should not bother to apply to be approved to adopt because of their Indian background). There can be no real dispute that both contemporaneous notes and the reasons given in writing afterwards by Ms Loades and Ms Redding, being employees of Adopt Berkshire and RBWM respectively, cited Mr and Mrs Mander’s ethnicity as a relevant consideration. The defence is really on the basis of an adequate explanation for differential treatment, which the authorities make clear that I do not consider at the stage of determining whether a prima facie case is made out. Accordingly, I must find that there is direct discrimination unless the Defendants can satisfy me on the balance of probabilities that they did not discriminate against Mr and Mrs Mander.

 

 

 

Having established that there is a prima facie case of direct discrimination, the Court then have to look at what Adopt Berkshire say as to why there WAS NOT discrimination in fact.

 

 

 

Note that intention to discriminate doesn’t come into it. 

 

I remind myself that the motives of discriminators are irrelevant, per R v Birmingham and JFS.

 

Lady Hale in JFS put the criteria/motive question this way in [62] of her judgment:

 

 

 

 

 

“[62] … there are in truth two different sorts of “why” question, one relevant and one irrelevant. The irrelevant one is the discriminator’s motive, intention, reason or purpose. The relevant one is what caused him to act as he did. In some cases this is absolutely plain. The facts are not in dispute. The girls in the Birmingham case [1989] AC 1155 were denied grammar school places, when the boys with the same marks got them, simply because they were girls. The husband in the James case [1990] 2 AC 751 was charged admission to the pool, when his wife was not, simply because he was a man. This is what Lord Goff was referring to as “the application of a gender-based criterion”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[63] But, as Lord Goff pointed out, there are also cases where a choice has been made because of the applicant’s sex or race. As Lord Nicholls put it in the Nagarajan case [2000] 1 AC 501, 510 – 511:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In every case it is necessary to inquire why the complainant received less favourable treatment. This is the crucial question. Was it on grounds of race? Or was it for some other reason, for instance, because the complainant was not so well qualified for the job? Save in obvious cases, answering the crucial question will call for some consideration of the mental processes of the alleged discriminator.”

 

Adopt Berkshire’s case was that Mr and Mrs Mander were rejected because the social worker and Agency were looking at the merits of assessing someone for whom they thought the eventual end point would not be likely to result in a match of a child being placed with them for adoption.  (I see the point, but common sense still seems to say to me that the only reason the Agency had thought that was because of their race…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

84.          What were the factual criteria that Ms Loades applied in rejecting Mr and Mrs Mander from proceeding to ROI? Ms Loades agreed in cross- examination that she selected potential adopters to progress at the IVR Meetings who she felt were mostly likely to succeed to placement. This was also the evidence of Ms Popat, it is reflected in Ms Loades letter of 4 May and Ms Redding’s letters of 14 June and 18 August 2016. I remind myself that was summarised in Ms Redding’s 18 August 2016 letter as follows: “Given the current position regarding the availability of children for adoption within the UK, Mrs and Mrs [sic] Mander are, for the reasons outlined in my previous letter, unlikely at this time to be able to achieve the placement of a child of Indian, Pakistani or mixed heritage. In addition there is currently a significant surplus of already approved White British/European adopters within the UK who are seeking placement of a child aged under four years. Therefore it is also highly unlikely that Mr & Mrs Mander would be able to achieve the placement of such a child however open they are to considering this placement option”. Most importantly, it is also the Defendants’ pleaded case. They plead that they decided not to progress Mr and Mrs Mander’s expression of interest in being approved to adopt any further, because it was adjudged that there was insufficient likelihood at that time that a child or children would be matched and subsequently placed with them for adoption within a reasonable timescale, and in reaching this decision, they took into account the profile of children who required placement.

 

85. Miss Foster in her skeleton and closing submissions has sought to widen the Defendants’ pleaded case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

86.          Firstly, she submits for the Defendants that targeted recruitment is condoned in the Statutory Guidance (at paragraph 3.6 of Chapter 3) as a legitimate method by which to recruit potential adopters who can meet the needs of waiting children and, in particular, the needs of harder to place children. I agree. However, in my judgment that guidance is about encouraging applications from a wider pool of prospective adopters and increasing the number of available adopters from particular communities, not about turning away applications on a summary basis, outwith the published processes, from prospective adopters who meet the eligibility criteria but who Adopt Berkshire consider on an Initial Visit do not, or might not, meet further unspecified and unpublished criteria.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

87.          Secondly, she submits that whether a prospective adopter can meet the needs of harder to place children lies within the discretion of experienced social workers, such as Ms Popat and Ms Loades. Although Mr and Mrs Mander say that they were willing to take sibling groups and look outside their own ethnicity, Miss Foster submits that it is for Ms Popat and Ms Loades as experienced social workers to interpret that and “filter it through the lens of their professional judgment” to decide as a matter of judgment and discretion whether they fitted within the Defendant’s criteria.

 

 

 

Her Honour Judge Clarke rejected this.

 

88.          I do not accept this submission. It is clear from the statutory framework and the AB Guidance that whether or not Mr and Mrs Mander were suitable to be approved as prospective adopters should be a matter for information gathering at the post-ROI pre-assessment Stage 1, and for assessment by an Adoption Panel at Stage 2. Whether Mr and Mrs Mander could meet the needs of harder to place children should be a matter for assessment only after an Adoption Panel has approved them, at the matching stage. Ms Loades in cross-examination accepted that:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i) part of the next stage of the process, once an ROI form was filed, was to work with potential adopters to see if they were willing to broaden the scope of the children that they might consider adopting, whether that was in terms of age, or higher needs, or differing ethnicities, or taking sibling groups;

 

 

 

 

 

ii) the ROI application form was much lengthier and contained much more in-depth and detailed information than would have been gleaned by a social worker at the Initial Visit.

 

 

 

89.          Accordingly, although the motive for the decision-making may have been to try and put forward prospective adopters who Ms Loades and her team considered would provide a good match for children waiting for adoption, I do not accept that the ability to meet harder to place children was a factual criterion at this stage, as Adopt Berkshire did not have the information properly to assess it. I remind myself that the motives of discriminators are irrelevant, per R v Birmingham and JFS.

 

 

 

…I am satisfied that the factual criterion which was given overwhelming priority in that decision, and the later decision not to reconsider that decision at the round-table meeting, was Mr and Mrs Mander’s ethnicity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

99.          The ‘crucial question’, as Lady Hale put it in JFS, is whether Mr and Mrs Mander received less favourable treatment by being (i) refused to progress to ROI; (ii) terminated from the prospective adopters approval process (and so the adoption service of Adopt Berkshire); and (iii) subjected to the pleaded detriments; on the grounds of race, or for some other reason. The Defendants have not satisfied me to the civil standard that Mr and Mrs Mander received this less favourable treatment for some other reason and so they have not displaced the presumption of direct discrimination arising from Mr and Mrs Mander’s prima facie case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100.        For those reasons I find that the Defendants directly discriminated against Mr and Mrs Mander on the grounds of race, as pleaded.

 

 

 

Damages were set at £60,000.