In re P (A child) 2016
The Court of Appeal conclude that a Judge who made a Placement Order (thus authorising a child to be placed for adoption) had not conducted a sufficiently robust analysis of the relative merits of the placement options before making that decision. The Judge had set out in the judgment what he was required to do, but the Court of Appeal say that he didn’t actually do it.
That’s been an issue I’ve been concerned about for quite a while – I read all of the published judgments, and it seems to me that the complaints that the Court of Appeal made in Re B-S about ‘adoption is the last resort’ being a stock phrase of judicial window-dressing, a remark to be thrown into a judgment but with no real engagement with the principle and philosophy has just been replaced by Judges inserting into their judgments huge swathes of case-law that tell them what they must do and what they must consider (including huge swathes of Re B-S) but there’s not often evidence when I read these judgments of the Judge going on to actually apply these principles. It seems to be considered sufficient for the Judge to simply tell everyone that they know the relevant portions of the caselaw rather than actually following those stipulations.
So in part, I’m rather glad of this case. It puts down that marker.
- While ostensibly aware of the need to adopt a ‘holistic’ approach to the evaluation of the options for P (and the guidance offered by Re B-S (Children)  EWCA Civ 1146,  1 FLR 1935 at  and at ), we are not convinced that Judge Ansell delivered on his intentions. It is, as this Court has emphasised in Re B-S and in Re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach)  (above)) “essential” that a judge provides an adequately reasoned judgment at the conclusion of a case such as this. We very much regret that after the extensive, perhaps overly discursive, review of the evidence this judgment is light on analysis of at least one of the two realistic options (i.e. adoption) to the degree of detail necessary, nor does the judgment contain a comparison of each option or options (see McFarlane LJ in Re G (Care Proceedings: Welfare Evaluation)  EWCA Civ 965,  1 FLR 670 at ), or a proportionality evaluation. In this respect, Mr. Horrocks makes good his submission.
- There is no specially prescribed form for a judge undertaking the exercise outlined above; the judge is doing little more than performing an ‘old-fashioned welfare balancing exercise’ (Re F  EWCA Civ 882 at ); the term ‘holistic’ does not have any special meaning. Neither the parties, nor this Court, will readily conclude that a judge has performed the necessary welfare balancing exercise just because he or she acknowledges the need to do so. The debate about whether the analysis of the realistic options is a ‘balance sheet’ of the pros and cons or an aide memoire of the key welfare factors and how they match up against each other is sterile. What is expected is that the benefits and detriments of each option are considered and there is an evaluation of each option as against the other based on that analysis.
- In this case, as in Re R (A Child) (Adoption: Judicial Approach) , Judge Ansell was faced with an essentially binary decision; either P was restored to her mother’s care, or she was adopted. There was no realistic alternative. The fact that the judge considered the merits of the mother’s position, properly evaluating, we are satisfied, her strengths and weaknesses, but ruling her out as a long-term carer for P before moving on to consider the other option of adoption is ‘linear’ thinking, both in form and substance (see Re R ).
- There was sufficient evidence before Judge Ansell for him to conclude that the mother was indeed a realistic option as a long-term carer for P (giving ‘realistic’ its ordinary English meaning: Re Y (Children)  EWCA Civ 1553). After all, her aspirations to care for P throughout her childhood had attracted some support during the proceedings from both the Family Centre and (until after the hearing had started) P’s Guardian. There were many positives of her parenting, as the Judge himself recognised. This was not one of those rare cases identified in North Yorkshire County Council v B  1 FLR 1645, and discussed by Sir James Munby P in Re R at , in which it would have been permissible for a court, albeit acting cautiously, to rule out a parent as a potential option (even in some cases before the final hearing itself) before going on to consider other options. By his judgment (both in substance and structure), Judge Ansell gives the impression that this is precisely what he did.
- That said, the judge conducted a sufficiently sound analysis of the pros and cons of the mother’s potential as a long-term carer of P; he was, after all, entitled to rely on the fact that the expert and professional evidence in this case all pointed against rehabilitation of P with her mother – namely, the final evidence from the Family Centre, the social worker’s assessments and the final recommendations of Mr. Abrahams. At least two of the professional witnesses (one of the social workers and the Children’s Guardian) had known the mother from the earlier proceedings, and were able to bring to this case long-standing knowledge of her care and parental capabilities. Indeed, it is significant to us that the experienced Guardian, who had represented P’s older half-siblings in the 2012/2013 proceedings, had initially supported the mother in her endeavour to care for P, but in the final analysis, had found himself unable to do so, having heard the same compelling oral evidence as the judge. Mr. Abrahams had concluded that P would not be safe in the care of the mother, a view on which the Judge was entitled to, and did, place significant reliance.
- However, that was only part of the required holistic evaluation. The Judge then needed to go on to consider the issue of adoption, and place that option up against the case for parental long-term care.(6) The outcome of adoption:
- As indicated in the previous section, having conducted a fair review of the mother’s strengths and weaknesses, and considered her potential as a long-term carer for P, the judge should, in our judgment, have gone on to conduct an internal analysis of the pros and cons of adoption, and then place that analysis up against his conclusions on the mother. In failing to do this, Mr. Horrocks has made good his complaint under this ground of appeal.
However, the Court of Appeal in this case go on to say that there is sufficient material before them for THEM to go on to conduct that analysis themselves, rather than send the case back for re-hearing. That’s an approach that is legally and properly available to them and they direct themselves to the relevant caselaw.
My querying eyebrow is that the Court of Appeal therefore consider that THIS is sufficient as an analysis of placement options, as it is the one that they themselves provide and rely upon
- In reaching a view about this, we have considered carefully the evidence from the senior social worker in the adoption team, the final statement of the key social worker, the Family Centre reports, the Placement Order report, the mother’s written evidence and the Guardian’s reports, all of which (save that from the mother) was evidence accepted by the judge. We consider that we have sufficient evidence to undertake the analysis ourselves.
- P is an eighteen-month old infant; she is in good health, though has sickle cell traits. She has the ordinary needs for “predictable, reliable, consistent” parenting from a parent who is “available, responsive and sensitive” (per Placement Order report). She has, in the judge’s finding, a warm relationship with her mother. We acknowledge, as indeed the social workers acknowledge, that if P were to express her feelings, she would almost certainly wish to be cared for by her mother, assisted by her father, provided this was in her best interests. This would reflect well her dual-heritage ethnicity, and would most completely respect her rights to family life; she would probably be able to establish a modest relationship with five of her six half-siblings, through her mother’s periodic contact with them.
- By contrast, adoption will sever all legal and emotional ties with the mother and she will, in all probability, lose any contact with her half-siblings; it is thought that any ongoing direct family contact could potentially destabilise any placement. P will nonetheless be claimed as a child in a new family. It is not envisaged that there will be difficulty in finding a suitable placement for P for adoption, and it is believed that this could be done within 3-6 months of a final placement order. The “strict” test for severing the relationship between parent and child by way of adoption is now clearly defined; it will be satisfied only in “exceptional circumstances” and:
“where motivated by overriding requirements pertaining to the child’s welfare, in short, where nothing else will do” Baroness Hale Re B .
- We have much in mind that the court’s paramount consideration, in accordance with section 1(2) of the ACA 2002, is P’s welfare “throughout [her] life.” We are of course acutely conscious of the effect on P of ceasing to be a member of her family. But having considered the case carefully, and having placed the options alongside each other, we share the judge’s view, essentially for the reasons he gave, that P’s best interests would not be protected, let alone enhanced, in the care of her mother. We are persuaded that adoption was indeed the only outcome which would meet P’s long term emotional and physical needs; it was, in the final analysis, the only realistic option. The judge was therefore entitled to conclude, albeit he expressed it with incautious brevity, that the mother’s consent to adoption was “required”.
- Notwithstanding the exceptionality of this outcome, and while acknowledging that the judgment is light on analysis of the competing options, and far from ‘holistic’ as McFarlane LJ used the term in Re G, the outcome was in our view sufficiently clear that we feel able to substitute our own conclusion.
It seems rather superficial and sketchy to me – it seems rather like the sort of analysis that the Court of Appeal railed against in Re B-S and all of those other cases. But now, rather than simply carping about what is deficient, we have a concrete example of what the Court of Appeal have ruled is SUFFICIENT. And it seems, to use vernacular, a bit weaksauce.
If I got that as the social worker’s analysis of placement options, I’d have been sending it back to ask for substantial improvements. I would have been telling them that it doesn’t comply with the guidelines laid down by Re B-S. It seems exactly the sort of analysis that the Court of Appeal described as being anodyne and inadequate. It is barely longer than the example that the Court of Appeal skewered in Re B-S.
And therefore, I am puzzled.
The Court of Appeal did express some sympathy for the Judge in the case
In focus in this appeal is a judgment which gives every appearance of being prepared under pressure of time, in a busy court, following directly from submissions at the conclusion of a five-day contested hearing. The result is, as all parties in this appeal have acknowledged to a greater or lesser extent, not altogether satisfactory – a matter of concern to us given that we have concluded that the judge was right for the additional reasons we shall describe; the outcome could not be more momentous for this mother and this child. The appeal represents an example of an all too common occurrence, namely the difficulty of finding time in a busy list adequately to explain a decision based on a series of multi factorial elements. The inevitable temptation for a judge who is seeking to be compassionate and also not to interfere with the other business of the court, is to try and do too much in the time available, when it would be better to take additional time.
The judgment was 30 pages long, so not exactly a half-assed rush job. What emerges from the Court of Appeal judgment was the sense that by the time the Judge reached the meat of the case, the real area where the judgment needs to shine – the analysis of placement options and reasons for conclusions, it had rather run out of steam.
The judgment finally accelerates to a rather abrupt discussion of the orders; in a concise concluding section the judge expressed the hope that he had “sufficiently analysed the options in this case”; he indicated that, “whether it be a holistic or linear approach”, he rejected the contention that either of these parents could safely protect P. He regarded himself as “driven to the only conclusion” that could be reached, namely a “care order in the welfare of the child must be made”. Without discussing the care plan as such, he reflected that a care order would “involve” a placement order and that required him “to dispense with the parental consent if the welfare of the child requires that consent to be dispensed with”. Without further reflection, he made those orders “in the interests of this child.”