Adoption, surrogacy and recording children: The last week in family law

A county council has been ordered by the High Court to pay £17,500 in damages to a 14-year-old girl in care, for breaches of her human rights. A final care order in respect of the girl was made by Mrs Justice Theis, but she also found that Kent County Council had breached the girl’s rights to family life and a fair trial. In particular, the council had failed to issue proceedings in a timely manner from March 2012 to November 2015, and as a consequence deprived the girl of the protection afforded to children under the Children Act 1989, and access to the court and the procedural protection of a guardian.

The government’s plans for adoption reform, aimed at moving more children more quickly from the care system to family life, were included in the Queen’s Speech. The plans are contained in the Children and Social Work Bill, which the government says will “tip the balance in favour of permanent adoption, where that is the right thing for the child… and drive improvements in the social work profession by introducing more demanding professional standards and setting-up a specialist regulator for the profession”. The legislation will require courts and local councils to “take better account” of a child’s need for stability when making adoption decisions. It also aims to give young people leaving the care system more help, with a commitment by local authorities act as better “corporate parents”, helping them when they make the transition into independent living. As part of the changes, care leavers will have the right to have a personal adviser until they are 25, to help them with the move into adulthood.

Along similar lines, a new independent review chaired by the crossbench peer Lord Laming has found that too many children in care are ending up behind bars. Up to half of all children in custody have been in care at some point. This, says the review, is a tragic waste of young lives which must be addressed if all children in care are to get the best start in life. The review, established by the Prison Reform Trust, calls for a coherent programme of reform, led from the very top of government, to help improve the life chances of looked after children and prevent future crime. Around half of the 1,000 children currently in custody in England and Wales have experience of the care system, despite less than 1% of all children in England, and 2% of those in Wales, being in care.

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has held that UK law discriminates against single parents with children born through surrogacy, and is incompatible with their human rights. In Re Z (A Child) (No 2) a British biological father of a 21-month-old boy who was born through a US surrogacy arrangement applied to the court for a parental order, which is required to extinguish the responsibilities of the surrogate and to issue a UK birth certificate for the child. However, the order was refused, because UK surrogacy law only allows couples, and not single parents, to apply. The President has now declared that the law is incompatible with the father’s and the child’s human rights, and discriminates against them. The government has responded to the decision by saying that it is now considering updating the relevant legislation.

And finally, a father involved in a residence dispute who had listening devices sewn into his daughter’s clothes so that he could record her meetings with a social worker has had his daughter moved from his care to that of the mother. The father had produced transcripts of the recordings at a hearing before Mr Justice Peter Jackson, as he wanted to be able to show that his daughter was saying things to professionals that they were not reporting or acting on. However, Mr Justice Jackson said that the recordings had not produced “a single piece of useful information” and had damaged relationships between adults in the girl’s life. He explained that the main reason for changing the girl’s home base was the conclusion that the father and his new partner could not meet her emotional needs as main carers – the recording programme was not the only indicator of this, but it was a prominent one. He also made it clear that it is almost always likely to be wrong for a recording device to be placed on a child for the purpose of gathering evidence in family proceedings.