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Court of Appeal sets out principles for deciding whether father or relative should be informed of existence of child who might be adopted

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The Court of Appeal has set out the principles governing decisions – whether by local authorities as adoption agencies or by the court – as to whether a putative father or a relative should be informed of the existence of a child who might be adopted.

The appeals in A, B And C (Adoption: Notification of Fathers And Relatives) [2020] EWCA Civ 41 concerned babies whose mothers concealed their pregnancies and did not want the fathers and other relatives to know of the births.

The issue, Lord Justice Peter Jackson, said was: Should the local authorities and the court notify the fathers or relatives before plans for the children's future are made and put into effect?

In each case the plan may involve adoption and in two of the cases that is what the mother wanted.

Lord Justice Peter Jackson said: “Respect is due to the position of any mother who goes through pregnancy without family support and then chooses to relinquish the child at birth in the belief that it is for the best.

“Respect is also due to the position of the unsuspecting relatives. Some may have been a fleeting presence in the mother's life, but others may be more significant figures who have been kept in the dark and would be astonished to find that a baby (their child, sibling or grandchild) had been born and adopted without their knowledge, particularly if they were in a position to put themselves forward as carers.

“Most of all, the notification decision has life-changing implications for the baby. It may influence whether adoption happens at all and, even if it does, a sound adoption has its foundations in the integrity of the process by which it is achieved.”

The Court of Appeal judge acknowledged that for social workers and courts these were not easy decisions. “They have to be made without delay, on incomplete information, and in the knowledge of the profound consequences for everyone concerned.”

He said the law aimed to distinguish those cases where a 'fast-track' adoption without notification of relatives was lawful from the majority of cases where the profound significance of the decision for the child demanded that any realistic alternatives to adoption are given proper consideration. “But in the end each case is unique and the outcome must depend on the facts.”

After reviewing the relevant statutory material and European and domestic case law, Lord Justice Peter Jackson summarised the principles governing these decisions as follows:

1. The law allows for 'fast-track' adoption with the consent of all those with parental responsibility, so in some cases the mother alone. Where she opposes notification being given to the child's father or relatives her right to respect for her private life is engaged and can only be infringed where it is necessary to do so to protect the interests of others.

2. The profound importance of the adoption decision for the child and potentially for other family members is clearly capable of supplying a justification for overriding the mother's request. Whether it does so will depend upon the individual circumstances of the case.

3. The decision should be prioritised and the process characterised by urgency and thoroughness.

4. The decision-maker's first task is to establish the facts as clearly as possible, mindful of the often limited and one-sided nature of the information available. The confidential relinquishment of a child for adoption is an unusual event and the reasons for it must be respectfully scrutinised so that the interests of others are protected. In fairness to those other individuals, the account that is given by the person seeking confidentiality cannot be taken at face value. All information that can be discovered without compromising confidentiality should therefore be gathered and a first-hand account from the person seeking confidentiality will normally be sought. The investigation should enable broad conclusions to be drawn about the relative weight to be given to the factors that must inform the decision.

5. Once the facts have been investigated the task is to strike a fair balance between the various interests involved. The welfare of the child is an important factor but it is not the paramount consideration.

6. There is no single test for distinguishing between cases in which notification should and should not be given but the case law shows that these factors will be relevant when reaching a decision:

(1) Parental responsibility. The fact that a father has parental responsibility by marriage or otherwise entitles him to give or withhold consent to adoption and gives him automatic party status in any proceedings that might lead to adoption. Compelling reasons are therefore required before the withholding of notification can be justified.

(2) Article 8 rights. Whether the father, married or unmarried, or the relative have an established or potential family life with the mother or the child, the right to a fair hearing is engaged and strong reasons are required before the withholding of notification can be justified.

(3) The substance of the relationships. Aside from the presence or absence of parental responsibility and of family life rights, an assessment must be made of the substance of the relationship between the parents, the circumstances of the conception, and the significance of relatives. The purpose is to ensure that those who are necessarily silent are given a notional voice so as to identify the possible strengths and weaknesses of any argument that they might make. Put another way, with what degree of objective justification might such a person complain if they later discovered they had been excluded from the decision? The answer will differ as between a father with whom the mother has had a fleeting encounter and one with whom she has had a substantial relationship, and as between members of the extended family who are close to the parents and those who are more distant.

(4) The likelihood of a family placement being a realistic alternative to adoption. This is of particular importance to the child's lifelong welfare as it may determine whether or not adoption is necessary. An objective view, going beyond the say-so of the person seeking confidentiality, should be taken about whether a family member may or may not be a potential carer. Where a family placement is unlikely to be worth investigating or where notification may cause significant harm to those notified, this factor will speak in favour of maintaining confidentiality; anything less than that and it will point the other way.

(5) The physical, psychological or social impact on the mother or on others of notification being given. Where this would be severe, for example because of fear arising from rape or violence, or because of possible consequences such as ostracism or family breakdown, or because of significant mental health vulnerability, these must weigh heavily in the balancing exercise. On the other hand, excessive weight should not be given to short term difficulties and to less serious situations involving embarrassment or social unpleasantness, otherwise the mother's wish would always prevail at the expense of other interests.

(6) Cultural and religious factors. The conception and concealed pregnancy may give rise to particular difficulties in some cultural and religious contexts. These may enhance the risks of notification, but they may also mean that the possibility of maintaining the birth tie through a family placement is of particular importance for the child.

(7) The availability and durability of the confidential information. Notification can only take place if there is someone to notify. In cases where a mother declines to identify a father she may face persuasion, if that is thought appropriate, but she cannot be coerced. In some cases the available information may mean that the father is identifiable, and maternal relatives may also be identifiable. The extent to which identifying information is pursued is a matter of judgement. Conversely, there will be cases where it is necessary to consider whether any confidentiality is likely to endure. In the modern world secrets are increasingly difficult to keep and the consequences, particularly for the child and any prospective adopters, of the child's existence being concealed but becoming known to family members later on, sometimes as a result of disclosure by the person seeking confidentiality, should be borne in mind.

(8) The impact of delay. A decision to apply to court and thereafter any decision to notify will inevitably postpone to some extent the time when the child's permanent placement can be confirmed. In most cases, the importance of the issues means that the delay cannot be a predominant factor. There may however be circumstances where delay would have particularly damaging consequences for the mother or for the child; for example, it would undoubtedly need to be taken into account if it would lead to the withdrawal of the child's established carers or to the loss of an especially suitable adoptive placement.

(9) Any other relevant matters. The list of relevant factors is not closed. Mothers may have many reasons for wishing to maintain confidentiality and there may be a wide range of implications for the child, the father and for other relatives. All relevant matters must be considered.

7. It has rightly been said that the maintenance of confidentiality is exceptional, and highly exceptional where a father has parental responsibility or where there is family life under Article 8. However exceptionality is not in itself a test or a short cut; rather it is a reflection of the fact that the profound significance of adoption for the child and considerations of fairness to others means that the balance will often fall in favour of notification. But the decision on whether confidentiality should be maintained can only be made by striking a fair balance between the factors that are present in the individual case.”

This approach was then applied to the three cases. Lord Justice Peter Jackson stressed that these appeals concerned notification, not adoption. “Nothing that I have said is intended to influence any decision that may have to be made as to whether A, B or C should be adopted. The only question at this stage is who should be consulted.”

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