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step-parent adoptions and nothing else will do

The Court of Appeal in Re P (a child) 2014 considered an appeal from a Judge who refused a step-parent adoption having applied the law (or at least the gloss on the law applied in the last year)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1174.html

 

Boiling it down to one question – does ‘nothing else will do’ apply to step-parent adoptions where the biological parent who is being ousted as the legal parent doesn’t consent?  Well, of course it does, one would immediately say. The whole thrust of Re B was about ‘non-consensual adoption’, that’s a  non-consensual adoption. And the whole hook of Re B was using the word ‘requires’ in the s52(1) (b) test  to carry with it a huge additional weight of proportionality and nothing else will do – running counter to the former President’s decision in  a previous  Re P that ‘require was a perfectly ordinary English word’  to import a meaning  that was much much more. (To be fair, that’s an additional amount of meaning taken directly from the ECHR decision of  Y v UK, which in effect was ‘the ECHR lets the UK persist in its weird ideas about adoption, but we only tolerate it if you take it bloody seriously’)

 

The legal test for dispensing with the father’s consent to make a step-parent adoption  (and these cases are almost always about fathers being cut out of children’s lives and legal relationship of fathers being severed – you just don’t get many stepmother adoptions) is s52(1) (b),  – the child’s welfare requires consent to be dispensed with.

 

So, of course, it must be ‘nothing else will do’.

 

And if it is “nothing else will do” then it is going to be spectacularly hard to demonstrate that for any proposed step-parent adoption  (not just that it would be better for the child to make the order but that there is literally no other solution – ie the status quo can’t remain for reasons which are hard to fathom, looking from the outside)

 

So, nothing else will do almost certainly kills off step-parent adoptions.

No, the Court of Appeal say otherwise.  (I will make it plain that I think this decision is wrong, but it’s the law, and we are stuck with it. I think it flies in the face of common sense, ignores the principle of least interventionist order and is particularly prejudicial to birth fathers)

 

Here is the Court of Appeal test for step-parent adoptions  (drawn from a 1999 ECHR case, Soderback v Sweden, which distinguished between State adoption and adoption within part of the biological family)

 

a) There is a distinction to be drawn between adoption in the context of compulsory, permanent placement outside the family against the wishes of parents (for example as in Johansen v Norway) and a step-parent adoption where, by definition, the child is remaining in the care of one or other of his parents;

b) Factors which are likely to reduce the degree of interference with the Art 8 rights of the child and the non-consenting parent [‘Parent B’], and thereby make it more likely that adoption is a proportionate measure are:

i) Where Parent B has not had the care of the child or otherwise asserted his or her responsibility for the child;

ii) Where Parent B has had only infrequent or no contact with the child;

iii) Where there is a particularly well established family unit in the home of the parent and step-parent in which ‘de facto’ family ties have existed for a significant period.

 

Those all seem to me very good reasons for a step-father having PR, but why are they good reasons for making an adoption order and changing a step-father into a legal father, and changing the biological father into a person with no connection to the child whatsoever?

 

The Court of Appeal do say that where the biological father is involved and opposes, the position is that the adoption should be a rare event and that the case ought to be resolved by making private law orders instead (there’s the ability to grant a step-father PR, or Child Arrangement Order (residence), even a Special Guardianship Order – although that would be insane, because it would give the step-father the legal power to override the birth mother. That’s so crackers that… it will probably happen within the next year)

 

In so far as the earlier domestic cases to which I have made reference establish that, in the event of Parent B being actively opposed to a step-parent adoption, practical arrangements should be dealt with by private law orders, that approach is entirely at one with the modern private law relating to children which seeks to determine aspects of the delivery of child-care and the discharge of parental responsibility either by parental agreement or by a child arrangements order under CA 1989, s 8.
 

The making of an adoption order is primarily, if not entirely, concerned with the legal status of the relationships between the child, his natural parent(s) and the adopter(s), rather than practical arrangements. Thorpe LJ’s words in Re PJ adhering to the aptness of earlier cautionary dicta, and reminding professionals of the need to be aware of the motives, emotions and possible unrealistic assumptions about any new family unit, remain as wise and sound as they were when uttered in 1998. In this manner, the approach of the domestic case law sits easily alongside that of the ECtHR in Söderbäck v Sweden

 

The earlier authorities on contested step parent adoptions thus still apply, despite their antiquity so here they are

 

In Re D (Adoption: Parent’s Consent) [1977] AC 602 the House of Lords gave consideration to a step-parent adoption application made by a mother and her new husband, which was opposed by the child’s father. Lord Wilberforce, at page 627, laid stress on three matters:
 

 

i) that under the statutory test for dispensing with parental consent, as it then was, the child’s welfare was only one consideration; the test being ‘reasonableness’ (Adoption Act 1958, s 7); 

ii) consent should only be dispensed with in rare and exceptional cases, and this was ‘all the more so in cases … where the adoption is desired by one natural parent and the other refuses consent’;

iii) an adoption order, which is irrevocable, should not be used to deal with practical considerations concerning custody, care and control or access.
Dicta of the Court of Appeal (for example that of Bagnall J in Re B (Adoption by Parent) [1975] Fam 127 at page 146) endorsed the third of these points and indicated that, in the event of the other natural parent opposing a step-parent adoption, the court would strive to achieve an outcome by ordinary private law orders rather than adoption.

 

 

This is going to make the issue of service of the birth father a very critical issue. If the birth father has been served and doesn’t turn up, the Court will probably make the step parent adoption order if it can be shown that the current family unit is settled and happy and that the birth father’s role has been limited. If he does turn up, the Court will probably NOT make the order.  Thus, making sure that the birth parent has been served is vital, and of course the likelihood is that these applications will be made after mum and birth father have been estranged for some years and without the benefit of public funding.

 

Step-parent adoption – telling the birth father

 

The High Court have just considered this issue in  A and B v P Council 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2014/1128.html

This is a step-parent adoption, i.e the child’s step-father seeking to become the child’s legal father, which would have the effect of severing the birth father’s legal relationship with the child. There are a raft of nationalities involved here, and the birth father’s name is on the birth certificate. The birth was recorded in Thailand, and thus it was not clear whether this gave him “parental responsibility”  [The High Court had initially decided to proceed on the assumption that he DID have PR]

The mother and step-father say that they do not have an address for the father, and he has had no contact with the child, who is now 9, for many years – in fact since just after his birth.

The issue for the Court was whether the adoption could go ahead without father being served with notice.

 

The Relevant Legal Framework

 

 

  • There is a measure of agreement between the parties, the Local Authority and Cafcass Legal regarding the relevant legal framework for this application.

 

 

 

 

  • A parent with parental responsibility is an automatic party to the proceedings under rule 14.1 Family Procedure Rules 2010 (FPR 2010).

 

 

 

 

  • A parent who does not have parental responsibility may be given notice of the proceedings and that person may apply to the court for party status (rule 14.3 FPR 2010).

 

 

 

  • It is agreed that if the father did hold parental responsibility under Thai law, that is not recognised in England and Wales for the purposes of English adoption law.

 

 

 

 

  • This is due to the operation of Article 4 of the Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Co-Operation in respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children (Concluded 19 October 1996) (hereafter referred to as the 1996 Convention).

 

 

 

 

  • Under Article 16 of the 1996 Convention parental responsibility which exists under the law of the State of the child’s habitual residence subsists after a change of that habitual residence to another State. This is even if the State of habitual residence is a non-contracting State (Article 20).

 

 

 

 

  • Under Article 17 the exercise of parental responsibility is governed by the law of the State of the child’s habitual residence and if the child’s habitual residence changes, it is governed by the law of the State of the new habitual residence.

 

 

 

 

  • However, when considering the scope of the 1996 Convention, Article 4 makes clear it does not apply to the establishment or contesting of a parent-child relationship, decisions on adoption, measures preparatory to adoption, or the annulment or revocation of adoption or the name or forenames of the child. The combination of the Explanatory Report on the 1996 Hague Convention by Paul Lagarde (in particular paragraph 28), the revised draft practical handbook on the 1996 Convention (May 2011) (in particular paragraph 3.37) and the Practice Guide on the 1996 Convention published by the Ministry of Justice (February 2013) (in particular page 6) make clear Article 4 is to be interpreted widely and includes all aspects of the adoption process, including the placement of children for adoption.

 

 

 

 

  • It is therefore agreed by the parties that even if the father did hold parental responsibility pursuant to the operation of Article 16, by operation of Article 4 he would not be treated as a parent within the context of s 52(6) ACA 2002. Within that context the father is not treated as a father who holds parental responsibility unless he has acquired it under sections 2 or 4 Children Act 1989 (CA 1989), which this father did not.

 

 

 

 

  • The consequence is that the father in this case does not hold parental responsibility for M within the meaning of the ACA 2002, his consent to the adoption under s 47(2) ACA 2002 is not necessary and would not be required to be dispensed with under s 52 ACA 2002. He is therefore not an automatic party to the adoption application under rule 14.1 FPR 2010.

 

 

 

 

  • However, notwithstanding that an unmarried father with ‘foreign parental responsibility’ is not a father with parental responsibility for the purposes of English adoption law the provisions of rule 14.4 FPR 2010 provide as follows:

 

 

 

Notice of proceedings to person with foreign parental responsibility

14.4

(1) This rule applies where a child is subject to proceedings to which this Part applies

and –

(a) a parent of the child holds or is believed to hold parental responsibility for the child under the law of another State which subsists in accordance with Article 16 of the 1996 Hague Convention following the child becoming habitually resident in a territorial unit of the United Kingdom; and

(b) that parent is not otherwise required to be joined as a respondent under rule 14.3.

(2) The applicant shall give notice of the proceedings to any parent to whom the applicant believes paragraph (1) applies in any case in which a person who was a parent with parental responsibility under the 1989 Act would be a respondent to the proceedings in accordance with rule 14.3.

(3) The applicant and every respondent to the proceedings shall provide such details as they possess as to the identity and whereabouts of any parent they believe to hold parental responsibility for the child in accordance with paragraph (1) to the court officer, upon making, or responding to the application as appropriate.

(4) Where the existence of such a parent only becomes apparent to a party at a later date during the proceedings, that party must notify the court officer of those details at the earliest opportunity.

(5) Where a parent to whom paragraph (1) applies receives notice of proceedings, that parent may apply to the court to be joined as a party using the Part 18 procedure.

With that in mind the Court went on to consider the issue of father’s PR

  • I am satisfied the mother and step-father do not believe the father has parental responsibility under Thai law and there is a rational foundation for their belief for the reasons set out in the previous paragraphs. That belief is derived from a number of different sources and there is no suggestion that the mother and step father have done other than comply with all the relevant authorities both in Thailand and here.

 

 

  • In the light of that I do not consider the mandatory requirement for notice of these proceedings to the father applies as, in accordance the provisions of rule 14.4 (1) and (2) the applicant (in this case the step-father) does not believe the father holds ‘parental responsibility for the child under the law of another State which subsists in accordance with Article 16 of the 1996 Hague Convention following the child becoming habitually resident in a territorial unit of the United Kingdom’.

 

 

  • Even if the father does not hold foreign parental responsibility the court is still required to consider whether the father should be given notice of the application.

 

 

The High Court then looked at the case law about giving fathers notice of adoption proceedings (or not giving them notice, as the case may be). Most of these arise from ‘relinquished’ babies, where the mother seeks to give the child up for adoption but does not want the father to be informed (often there’s a short-lived relationship, or an abusive one, or the pregnancy has been concealed from the mother’s own family).  There are some gray areas at present as to whether these are thus ‘consensual’ adoptions (and Re B, B-S don’t apply) or whether because father hasn’t consented they are in reality ‘non-consensual adoptions” to which Re B and Re B-S  (the Court having to be satisfied that ‘nothing else will do’) apply.

 

[The same gray area potentially arises here, since the father was not consenting, but the mother was. The High Court don’t actually resolve that gray area – not sure whether that lets the conclusion be drawn that the High Court, given they don’t use ‘nothing else will do’ wording  means that they consider a case of THIS kind to be consensual adoption. It may not be safe to draw that conclusion, since the last paragraph indicates that having dealt with the issue of service on father not being required, the Court would go on to consider the MERITS of the application on another occasion.   Frankly, if “nothing else will do” applies to step-parent adoptions, it is hard to see how they would ever be granted.  The child is in the placement, there are other legal routes to secure parental responsibility for the step-father, how could one ever consider that ‘nothing else than step-parent adoption would do’?)

 

 

  • it has long been recognised that in applications for adoption the position of the natural father who did not have parental responsibility had to be considered and a decision taken in each case whether, or not, to give him notice of the proceedings. Whether to do so should be considered on the facts of each case.

 

 

 

 

  • Re H (a child)(adoption: disclosure), Re G(a child)(adoption: disclosure) [2001] 1 FCR 726 set out that as a matter of general practice, directions should be given to inform natural fathers of such proceedings unless for good reasons the court decided it was not appropriate to do so. The issue of whether or not the father had a right to respect for family life under Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950 as set out in Part 1 of Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998 was important to establish. If he did then generally Article 6(1) of the Convention is engaged and there would need to be strong countervailing factors to outweigh the father’s Article 6 rights in favour of the mother’s right to private family life. Such countervailing factors may include serious domestic violence that placed the mother at serious physical risk. As the then President, Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss, observed in Re H (ibid) at para 48 ‘There may well be other situations in which a father should not be informed of the proceedings and my examples are, of course, not exhaustive’. If the father does not have any Article 8 rights the provisions of Article 6 are not engaged and notice does not need to be given, unless there is a real possibility that he might make an application under the CA 1989 which the court ought to entertain.

 

 

 

 

  • In the cases where the court is being asked to exercise its power to grant exception from the rules which require a father to be given notice the previous cases establish this power should only to be exercised in ‘highly exceptional circumstances’ (per Thorpe LJ Re AB (Care Proceedings: Service on Husband Ignorant of Child’s Existence) [2003] EWCA Civ 1842 para 3) or a ‘high degree of exceptionality is required’ (per Longmore LJ M v F [2011] EWCA Civ 273 para 25). This will depend on the court’s assessment of the risk of future harm. In M v F (ibid) para 3 Thorpe LJ stated ‘When evaluating the risk of future harm there can be no minimum requirement. The court’s first task is to identify the nature and extent of the harm in contemplation. The greater the harm the smaller need be the risk. Obviously, the risk of death may be very small, whereas the risk of turbulence in family relationships would need to be much higher.’ In assessing the likelihood of harm arising from notice of the proceedings the test to be applied is the test in Re H (minors)(Sexual Abuse: Standard of Proof) [1996] AC 563 namely ‘in the sense of a real possibility, a possibility that cannot sensibly be ignored having regard to the nature and gravity of the feared harm in the particular case’.

 

 

 

 

  • There may, in reality, be little difference in the principles between these two strands of cases as a critical starting point is to establish whether or not the father has any right to family life pursuant to Article 8. It is agreed this is a question of fact and there are a number of matters for the court to consider. It has been said that the threshold for establishing family life has been set at a fairly modest level.

 

Applying the broad principles to the case, the Court heard representations about allegations of previous violence from the birth father to the mother

 

 

  • I have very carefully considered the important competing considerations in this case and I am very mindful of the general practice to inform natural fathers of applications such as this which fundamentally affect the status of a child. I have considered this aspect of the case in the context of rule 14.4 and, for the purposes of this analysis assumed this father does have foreign parental responsibility. So there is a mandatory requirement under the rules for him to be given notice of the proceedings.

 

 

 

 

  • I am considering this issue in the context of my finding that the father, for the reasons I have already explained, does not have any existing Article 8 rights. He is someone who has not sought to maintain his ties with M.

 

 

 

 

  • The wish of the mother and step-father for confidentiality is, in my judgment, an exceptional circumstance, on the facts of this case, justifying the court exercising its power to grant exception from the rules requiring the father to be given notice. The evidence based fears expressed by the mother regarding the father’s behaviour is founded on the father’s previous violent behaviour to her, M and her wider family which is supported by corroborative evidence. In my judgment there is a real possibility that if the father is informed of this application he could physically harm or threaten the mother or the wider maternal family. It is a possibility that cannot be ignored having regard to the extent of the father’s alleged violent behaviour towards the mother and her wider family in the past, in the context where the maternal family remain in the same home which is known to the father. On the particular facts of this case the balance, in my judgment, comes down in favour of the father not being notified about these proceedings, even if he could be located.

 

 

I am satisfied the Local Authority in this case does not need to take any further steps regarding the father for the reasons outlined above.