Tag Archives: parents rights

What are the nature of and limits to parents’ rights?

This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

Parents versus the state

The question of ‘parents rights’ has been bought into very stark focus by the court hearings around Charlie Gard. EDIT And have continued around the case of Alfie Evans. There has been an enormous wealth of comment, blogs and articles which demonstrates the strong emotional reactions of many to these proceedings; a stark illustration of the tensions around balancing completing ‘rights’ and interests of parent and child – particularly when the child is an unconscious baby.

A thoughtful article in the Independent summarised the key issues well – decisions over Charlie Gard’s future encapsulated a clash between medical opinion and parental instinct. The law is clear; where doctors and parents disagree over what treatment is in the ‘best interests’ of a child, neither parents nor doctors are able to demand or veto certain treatment. Any dispute must come before a court where a Judge will decide. The court had to operate on the fundamental principle of the Children Act 1989; that Charlie’s welfare would be the ‘paramount’ consideration.

Parents versus parents

Parents ‘rights’ when they argue between themselves about what is best for their child, are utterly subsumed into the idea of the ‘welfare of the child’. This principle was firmly and clearly restated by the Supreme Court in B (A Child) [2009] UKSC. See the judgment of  Lord Kerr at para 37 :

… All consideration of the importance of parenthood in private law disputes about residence must be firmly rooted in an examination of what is in the child’s best interests. This is the paramount consideration. It is only as a contributor to the child’s welfare that parenthood assumes any significance. In common with all other factors bearing on what is in the best interests of the child, it must be examined for its potential to fulfil that aim.

There is an immediate and obvious distinction between public law (cases involving the local authority and parents) and private law (cases involving disputes between family members). Where the state wishes to intervene in the sanctity of family life, it has to satisfy the test under section 31 of the Children Act 1989 and show the child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm. Nothing less will justify state intervention and this high threshold will mean that some children grow up in less than ideal situations. The risks and impracticality of any policy of deliberate ‘social engineering’ determine this outcome.

But in private law cases, it is different. The focus there is on which parent or which place would promote the child’s best interests and ‘parents’ rights’ are clearly subsumed as relevant only insofar as the parents claim a right to promote those best interests.

There are some who are critical of this approach and worry that the pendulum may have swung too far away from considering ‘parents rights’ or the rights of the family as a whole.

However, the emphasis on the welfare of the child is explained by the problems that arise when individual family members have very different views about what constitutes a child’s best interests. A stark example is found in the case of Gibbs v Gibbs in 2017 where the mother was eventually sent to prison for refusing to end her campaign to publicise the father as abusive towards their children. To attempt to resolve a dispute about a child by identifying, analysing and weighing in the balance the ‘rights’ of all adult disputants would take time and energy away from identifying what the child needs.

Some areas of concern

Why does the test to over rule a parents’ rights differ according to who or what wants to prevail? 

The question for the court, in deciding a clash between parents and a state agency that happened to be a hospital was not whether Charlie Gard would suffer ‘significant harm’ if further treatment was carried out. The issue was whether or not the treatment was in his ‘best interests’ – his welfare was paramount. 

Some commentators expressed concern about this. If social workers decide that a child should be removed from his or her parents’ care, they have to bring this to a court and satisfy the test under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. That children would ‘do better’ in another environment is never a justification – as Baroness Hale commented in Re B (Children) [2008] UKHL 35

In a totalitarian society, uniformity and conformity are valued. Hence the totalitarian state tries to separate the child from her family and mould her to its own design. Families in all their subversive variety are the breeding ground of diversity and individuality. In a free and democratic society we value diversity and individuality. Hence the family is given special protection in all the modern human rights instruments…

Already, it isn’t clear what weight is afforded to the views of parents who clash with the decisions preferred by a state agency. Why should a decision whether or not to end medical treatment for a child be subject to a different test to the decision whether or not to remove a child from the parents’ care?

No one has doubted that Charlie Gard’s parents were acting out of anything other than love for their son and wish to secure him the best possible treatment. If there was no evidence before the court that their decisions risked causing him significant harm, why should the court interfere? No doubt, Charlie Gard’s parents have found the process by which their wish to make decisions for their son was overruled by the courts, similar to the misery and bafflement of a parent who faces the adoption of their child, without their consent.

If there is no legal aid, what are the implications for access to justice?

A further anomaly is the automatic availability of legal aid to parents in care cases – but not parents facing applications by an NHS trust, or wishing to argue against an adoption order, or parents arguing between themselves – unless one can show evidence of domestic violence.

Charlie Gard’s parents did not have legal aid and could not afford to pay for a lawyer. They were fortunate to find lawyers prepared to act for nothing. Francis J commented at para 17 of his judgment:

it does seem to me that when Parliament changed the law in relation to legal aid and significantly restricted the availability of legal aid, yet continued to make legal aid available in care cases where the state is seeking orders against parents, it cannot have intended that parents in the position that these parents have been in should have no access to legal advice or representation. To most like-minded people, a National Health Service trust is as much an arm of the state as is a local authority. I can think of few more profound cases than ones where a trust is applying to the court for a declaration that a life- support machine should be switched off in respect of a child.

‘Rights’ which cannot be enforced in court because the parents can’t afford legal representation and don’t understand complicated law, are no rights at all.

The adversarial system and the standard of proof

An enormous problem – and one which I think firmly underpins most of the criticism and distrust of the family law system – is that an adversarial process which relies on oral evidence and cross examination may work tolerably well in circumstances where the disputed facts are often backed up by contemporaneous written documents. But it is often very difficult to test ‘evidence’ that is no more than the assertions of two people. Particularly when these people are giving an account of their relationship, built up over many years and which may have been experienced/witnessed by only them.

In cases where parents make allegations against each other of sexual or violent abuse, it is my view that waters have been seriously and dangerously muddied by the requirement that police forces were to commence investigations into sexual assaults on the basis that they ‘believe’ the complainant (who is usually described as the ‘victim’ ).To have as a ‘starting point’ a belief that one person is telling the truth fundamentally poisons the integrity of any investigative process. See the 2016 report of Sir Richard Henriques into the failures of the investigations of the Metropolitan police in ‘Operation Midland’.

Parents in care proceedings have raised serious criticisms about the standard of proof in care cases being on the ‘balance of probabilities’ – pointing out that removing a child from an unwilling parent is every bit as horrible as sentencing a parent to a prison sentence and the standard of proof should therefore meet the criminal standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

What are rights worth if they can be discarded by the state on a low standard of proof?

Enforcement of established rights

However even a ‘blameless’ parent who is vindicated at the conclusion of a finding of fact may not find that their ‘rights’ translate into any kind of action by the courts, because of the likely impact of such action on the emotional well being of the child.

This is often the argument used against removing a child from an adoptive placement to return to birth parents – but the UK has been criticised for failing to give sufficient recognition to the child’s right to be brought up by his or her birth parents.

What are ‘rights’ worth if they are not even considered, because ‘paramount’ is interpreted as ‘exclusive’ or ‘overwhelming’ ?


How do we establish what is in a child’s best interest if parents don’t have the ‘right’ to determine this?

This brief discussion above about the limits of parental autonomy to determine outcomes for their children highlights that as a society we have agreed that parents do not have the right to subject their children to whatever indignity they wish in the name of ‘family life’ or ‘respect for parents’.  The court will therefore have to hear evidence and make a decision based on the evidence before it.  The court is faced with a truly difficult job when before it come two parents who argue from entirely different perspectives about the fitness of the other to parent.

I have always supported the need for the state to intervene to protect the most vulnerable members of its society. Children are not the chattels of their parents; some children do need to be ‘rescued’.

But the state and its officers have to tread carefully around the ‘family’ and how they chose to intervene in its structures. The emotion and interest in the ‘rights’ of parents in the aftermath of proceedings around Charlie Gard demonstrate a clear need for further discussion and exploration of the nature and extent of parents rights. A system that appears to horrify a large proportion of the population subject to it, has either not been well explained or should not be defended.


Has the child’s welfare pendulum swung too far – are Parents’ rights disregarded?

We are grateful for this guest post by contributor and parent Maya Birdwood-Hedger.

The current state of the law is probably best summed up by Re B (A child) [2009] UKSC . In summary, the court held that it is only as a contributor to the child’s welfare that parenthood assumes any significance. Have we gone too far in our focus on the welfare of the child and the child alone as the issue of paramount concern? Can the interests of parents and children be so easily distinguished?

Introduction – what is meant by parental rights and responsibility?

Lord Steyn, writing extra-judicially, said: “A constitutional democracy must protect fundamental rights. It is morally right that the state, and all who act on its behalf in a broad functional sense, should respect the fundamental rights of individuals. Without such a moral compass the state is bound to treat individuals arbitrarily and unjustly.” [Lord Steyn – quoted in Brayne and Carr. Law for social workers/ 10th edition/ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 75]
Bainham and Gilmore ask two separate (albeit connected) questions:

  • is it possible to identify independent interests which parents have in relation to their children?
  • If so, should the law recognise and accommodate these? [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 328]

To answer the first question, they quote philosopher David Archard:

Being a parent is extremely important to a person. Even if a child is not thought of as the property or even an extension of the parent, the shared life of a parent and child involves an adult’s purposes and aims at the deepest level… parents have an interest in parenting – that is, in sharing a life with, and directing the development of their child. It is not enough to discount the interests of a parent in a moral theory of parenthood. What must merit full and proper consideration is the interest of someone in being a parent.[ Archard/ Children, Family and the State/ Ashgate 2003, 94]

Although the second question is more difficult to answer, given the current commitment of the law to the welfare of children, Bainham and Gilmore say that there are at least two good reasons why the law should recognise the interests of parents:

  • once parentage is established, very wide-ranging and extensive burdens are placed by the law on the parents – financial, emotional and practical. Moreover, these responsibilities last for 18 years and longer than that if more than one child is involved.
  • Secondly, the law needs to reflect the reality of everyday life.

The honest position is that parents do not, and are not required, to act at all times with their children’s interests paramount in their minds. It would be far better for this to be transparently and openly acknowledged rather than to act out a pretence that only children’s interests count.[ Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 329-330]

Herring distinguishes three different forms of parental rights:

  • Parents’ human rights, the rights that parents have as human beings, e.g. a right to free speech. These rights include those protected by the Human Rights Act 1988.
  • Parents’ child-centred rights. These are the rights that are given to parents in order to carry out their parental obligations, e.g. to clothe, feed and house the child.
  • Parents’ parent-central rights. Here Herring refers to law professor and author Alexander McCall Smith who explains that parent-centred rights are given to parents not specifically to further the welfare of the child but to reflect the interests that parents have in bringing up their children in the way they wish. An example of this may be religious upbringing. Here it may be impossible to prove that one particular form of religious upbringing promotes a child’s welfare better than any other or no religious upbringing. The right of a parent to involve their child in religious practices does not necessarily reflect the welfare of a child, but rather promotes the interests of the parent to raise the child in accordance with the parent’s religious beliefs. These parent-centred rights could be said to further society’s interests as well in that children are brought up to have different beliefs, interests and lifestyles, thus contributing to a culturally diverse and rich society[Herring, Jonathan / Family Law/ London: Routledge, 2012, 145; McCall Smith, Alexander (1990). Is anything left of parental rights? In Sutherland and McCall Smith Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Ethics/ Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.]

Historic developments

As Sawyer explains, “children were historically useful as labour or as a source of income by being hired elsewhere” [Sawyer, Caroline/ Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility/ Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 228] but gradually a growing perception that parents did not always know or do what was good for their children did lead to the idea of children having their own place in the legal process.

According to Hendrick (2005), the Children Act 1948 heralded a new approach to parent-child relationships, which encouraged the newly established Children’s Departments “to view children with individual human beings with both shared and individualised needs, rather than an indistinct mass.” Thereafter the parents did not formally appear during care proceedings, but effectively exercised their legal right of representing their children in the proceedings. Soon after the Adoption Act 1949 allowed adopting children without their parents’ consent on the basis that the parents were unreasonably withholding their consent. [Adoption of Children Act 1949, s.3 (1)]

The further shift appears to have happened with the death of Maria Colwell in 1973: her mother and stepfather successfully argued she should return home to them, and then the stepfather killed her. Following that case, section 64 of the Children Act 1975 provided that children in care would be represented by professional Guardians ad Litem – trained social workers. Further on, the 1989 Children Act provided that the court should appoint a guardian ad litem for the child in all “specified” (broadly speaking, public law) proceedings unless it was satisfied that the child’s welfare would be adequately safeguarded without one [Children Act 1989, s 41].

The duty of the social worker to balance between children’s and parents’ rights was established even more firmly in the report by Martin Narey for the Times newspaper: it was proposed to give greater prominence to adoption in social work training so that social workers’ role is seen as unequivocally that of protector of the child rather than friend of the family [The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children. /The Times. July 5, 2011.]

The Children Act 1989

There is recognition that The Children Act 1989 represents the philosophy of its time, i.e. it “ostensibly put the child at the centre of all proceedings about the family”. [Sawyer, Caroline/ Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 228.]

Section 1(1) of the Children Act provides that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” Bainham and Gilmore question if paramountcy can actually survive the Human Rights Act 1988. [EDIT – It has: see this article by Claire Fenton Glynn] They reiterate that adult rights to respect for private and family life must be respected and must not be interfered with unless the specific justifications envisaged by Article 8(2) exist and only when they are necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 62-63]

Below we will consider some situations where courts can interfere in family life.

Private law orders

According to Wallbank (who used the 2004 data), only 10% of parents sought help from the courts to resolve issues regarding post-separation arrangements concerning children. [Wallbank, Julie/ Parental Responsibility and the Responsible Parent: Managing the ‘Problem’ of Contact/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2009: 304] The numbers may have plummeted further, following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 removing legal aid for most private law cases. [Baksi, Catherine/ Family lawyers sound alarm on separating parents/ The Law Society Gazette, 14.08.14]

Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 sets out and defines three orders, known as “s 8 orders” and regulating the exercise of particular aspects of parental responsibility while leaving parental responsibility itself intact. The “child arrangements order” replaces the old ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ orders following the 2014 Children and Families Act. This allows the courts to address the practicalities of with whom the children will live or have contact. A “prohibited steps order” allows the court to prohibit the exercise of certain aspects of parental responsibility while a “specific issue order” to determine a specific question.

Section 11 of the Children and Families Act 2014 provides a presumption that the involvement of a parent in a child’s life will further the child’s welfare, unless the contrary is shown. ‘Involvement’ means ‘involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of the child’s time’ [CFA 2014 s 11(2)(2B)]

The extent to which the legal system should promote shared parenting has been the subject of considerable debate. Fathers’ rights organisations have been campaigning against the “social catastrophe” of fathers not being allowed access to their children. [Fathers4Justice campaigner jailed for defacing Queen’s portrait. The Guardian, 05.02.14] There is, however, some evidence that shared parenting may be an independent risk factor for younger children as well as those who become caught between parents in high conflict. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 224.]


Commonly used orders in public law

This section looks at the range of orders the court can make in the course of care proceedings.

Emergency protection order

Under this order the court may remove a child from the household if there is reasonable cause to believe that the child is likely to suffer significant harm if—

(a) (i) He is not removed to accommodation provided by or on behalf of the applicant; or

(ii) He does not remain in the place in which he is then being accommodated;

(b) (In the case of an application made by a local authority—

(i) Enquiries are being made with respect to the child under section 47(1) (b); and

(ii) Those enquiries are being frustrated by access to the child being unreasonably refused to a person authorised to seek access and that the applicant has reasonable cause to believe that access to the child is required as a matter of urgency. [Children Act 1989, 44(1)]

In X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342 Munby J (as he then was) reiterated the stringent nature of the obligation on the local authority when considering protective measures to comply with the obligation for procedural fairness and to respect the Article 8 right of the family generally and the parents in particular. The guidelines are that “save in wholly exceptional cases, parents must be given adequate prior notice of the date, time and place of any application by a local authority for an EPO. [X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342]

Care and Supervision Orders

On the application of the Local Authority or the NSPCC the court can consider making either order if the provisions of section 31 of the Children Act 1989 are made out. This requires the judge to be satisfied that a child has suffered or is at risk of significant harm. Under the Care Order the Local Authority obtains parental responsibility for the child. [Children Act 1989, 33 (3)] Although de jure the parents also retain parental responsibility, in reality it allows them little more than the right of consultation.

While a supervision order is in place, it allows the Local Authority “to advise, assist and befriend the supervised child”. [Ibid. 35 (1) (a)] However, if the parents refuse to comply with the supervision order, the Local Authority is likely to apply for a care order, even if the parents maintain that they are capable to look after their children without supervision or support. That becomes apparent in the judgement by Mrs Justice Parker:

Throughout these proceedings it has been the father’s view that he can cope; he can be trusted; in deciding to make sure the support is there. He is opposed to the role of the local authority; and he says that their anxiety to check that all is well with the children is misplaced because it is totally unnecessary. But the local authority has statutory duties in respect of all children in need and particularly children who are the subject of proceedings. [Hertfordshire County Council v F & Others [2014] EWHC 2159 (Fam) (23 May 2014), para 9]

In this case the application to remove the child was made because the Local Authority was concerned about the father preventing them from supervising the child. One can then argue that the needs of the child to be supervised by the Local Authority were viewed by the court as superior to the parents’ right to care for their own children.

In the case above the child was placed in the care of the Local Authority. The family then had another baby who was taken into care on the interim care order shortly after birth. The father was later criticised by the judge for not having given the baby a first name. The judge believed it was emotionally harmful not to give a child a name. The father is this case is a British Indian and a devout Hindu. The parents were anxious to have their child named according to Hindu tradition, which involves a temple ceremony, Namakarana, which only the parents, close family and friends can attend. But the social workers insisted that they be present, lest the family “abduct” the child. [Booker, Christopher. The real story of the ‘baby with no name’/ In The Telegraph, 31.05.14]

Here one can see an apparent conflict between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child: the child has a right to be named. The parents have the parental duty to name their child, but also the right to name him in a ceremony, compatible with their religious and cultural beliefs. In this case they were not allowed to exercise that right, but the judge was more concerned with their failure to fulfil their parental responsibility.

The Placement Order

This order allows the Local Authority to place a child for adoption with potential adopters chosen by them. After the placement order is made, the Local Authority will implement a gradual reduction in contact between the parents and the child. Once a placement has been identified, the birth parents will usually be offered a final contact with the child, sometimes euphemistically described as a “wishing you well” contact and sometimes more accurately described as a “goodbye” contact. The majority of parents can expect no more than “letterbox” contact once the child has been placed. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 677.]

The “goodbye” contact is understandably traumatising to both parents and children, but, when the parents cry, they can get criticised for “emotional abuse”. [Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15]

Once the child has been placed with the prospective adopters and lived there for at least ten weeks, they can apply for the Adoption Order to be made. One of three conditions under section 47 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 must be satisfied before the court may make an adoption order.

The first condition is that, in the case of each parent or guardian of the child, the court is satisfied—
(a) that the parent or guardian consents to the making of the adoption order,
(b) that the parent or guardian has consented under section 20 (and has not withdrawn the consent) and does not oppose the making of the adoption order, or
(c) That the parent’s or guardian’s consent should be dispensed with.
(3)A parent or guardian may not oppose the making of an adoption order under subsection (2) (b) without the court’s leave.

(4)The second condition is that—
(a) the child has been placed for adoption by an adoption agency with the prospective adopters in whose favour the order is proposed to be made,
(b) Either—
(i) the child was placed for adoption with the consent of each parent or guardian and the consent of the mother was given when the child was at least six weeks old, or
(ii) The child was placed for adoption under a placement order, and
(d) No parent or guardian opposes the making of the adoption order.

The question of dispensing with parental consent has been at the heart of the conflict between what professionals view as “the best interests of the child” and the fundamental rights attached to the relationship of parent and child. While parents might understand that they are unable to look after a child themselves and may be prepared to have the child looked after by other people, they might not be willing to accept the complete termination of their legal relationship with the child. Traditionally English law has viewed this as a question which involves the rights of parents and has made provisions, through the statutory consent requirements, for the proper accommodation of those rights. The major change brought about by the 2002 Act is that the welfare of the child has, controversially, been put centre stage. This has led to legitimate concerns about what has happened to the rights of parents and may give rise to challenges under the ECHR. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 688.]

Section 52 (1) of the Adoption Act 2002 has abolished all the previous grounds for dispensing with parental consent except for one and has replaced them with the welfare principle:
The court cannot dispense with the consent of any parent or guardian of a child to the child being placed for adoption or to the making of an adoption order in respect of the child unless the court is satisfied that—

  • the parent or guardian cannot be found or is incapable of giving consent, or
  • the welfare of the child requires the consent to be dispensed with.

The second condition is now the major ground for dispensing with parental consent. It raises the serious question of what weight, if any, is to be given to parental interests or rights in preserving their legal relationship with the child. It becomes clear that if the court’s view is that adoption is in the child’s best interests, then whether or not the parent is behaving reasonably in objecting to this will have no bearing on the decision. [Bainham and Gilmore/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013, 689]

When a parent endeavours to oppose the making of the adoption order at that stage, they have to clear three fences which can be seen to be progressively higher fences. The first is to establish the necessary change of circumstances. The second is then to satisfy the court that, in the exercise of discretion, it would be right to grant permission. The third and final stage would of course be to persuade the court at the opposed hearing to refuse the adoption order and to reverse the direction in which the child’s life has travelled since the inception of the original public law care proceedings. [Borough of Poole v W & another [2014] EWHC 1777 (Fam), para 8]

In paragraph 24 of the judgement quoted above the judge recognised that the parents had demonstrated “a commitment to the child which entitles them to have their wishes and feelings considered” yet was concerned whether the child in question would “survive the process of rehabilitation” to her parents’ care. On balance, the judge decided to make the adoption order, concluding:

In making the order which, in my judgment, promotes the welfare of SR, I fully recognise the grief of the parents who do not share my view and I recognise that I have no comfort to offer them, beyond letterbox contact. If ever an example was needed of how legitimate and heartfelt aspirations of parents can be trumped by the welfare needs of the child, this surely is it.

Adoption order

Section 67 (1) of the Adoption Act 2002 provides that “an adopted person is to be treated in law as the child of the adopters or adopter”. Adoption thus terminates existing parental responsibility and transfers it to the adoptive parents; it also terminates the very legal relationship of parent and child. The effect of adoption was recently described by a Supreme Court Judge Lord Wilson as “an act of surgery which cuts deep into the hearts and minds of at least four people and which will affect them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day of their lives” (Wilson, 2014, 19 Denning Society Lecture at Lincoln’s Inn: Adoption: Complexities beyond the Law, 13 November 2014, The Supreme Court)

As the purpose of adoption is to effect a permanent change of family, the making of an adoption order is seen as final, and it is thus very rare for an adoption order to be put aside, even where natural parents have suffered a serious injustice. In Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [2009] EWCA Civ 59] three children were adopted without parental consent because of what was thought to be non-accidental injury to one of the children who had suffered fractures. Later on expert evidence suggested that the fractures had been caused by a rare case of scurvy as a result of the child’s diet which had been recommended by doctors.

The Court of Appeal refused the parents leave to appeal out of time to have the adoptions set aside, having regard to the public policy considerations regarding adoptions as well as interests of the children: they were settled with their adoptive parents. The adoptive parents argued that overturning the adoptions would “cause enormous stress, anxiety, disruption and emotional / psychological harm, particularly to the children” (para 92).

Wilson LJ concluded that it was too late to set aside the adoption orders, considering the interests of the children: “almost four years ago they moved into alternative homes which they were told would be permanent and of which they would be full, legal members; and at that time they ceased even to see the applicants.” (para 204). Thus, the interests of the children prevailed to the extent that the Court effectively decided to leave the children in their “alternative homes”. The parents, on the other hand, are determined to remain living in the same house until their children are old enough to come and find them. “When she knocks on our door, we will be here with all the love and the kisses and the memories and hugs that we have all missed. I pray for that every night”, the mother said in a recent newspaper interview. [Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15]

The Children and Families Act 2014

The Children and Families Act 2014 came into force in April last year. Most practitioners agree that its main reform was at section 14, to introduce a time limit of 26 weeks for care and supervision proceedings, although the court can extend that period, but “only if the court considers that the extension is necessary to enable the court to resolve the proceedings justly”. The main reason for the reform was the view that delays in care and supervision proceedings were harmful to children. “These family justice reforms put children clearly at the heart of the family justice system and focus on children’s needs rather than what parents see as their own ‘rights’”, announced Simon Hughes, the then Justice Minister. [Family Justice Reforms to Benefit Children – Press release – GOV.UK/ 22.04.14].

Many judges, on the other hand, are concerned that the imposed time limit could be in conflict with the court’s aim to determine the right outcome in the proceedings: “Where the proposal before the court is for non-consensual adoption, the issues are too grave, the stakes for all are too high, for the outcome to be determined by rigorous adherence to an inflexible timetable and justice thereby potentially denied.” [Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146, para 49]

Concern about the time limit has been expressed by other professionals: for example, a study by the Family Drug and Alcohol Court (FDAC) concluded:

The government’s agenda for adoption reform places emphasis on speeding up decisions and action in placing babies and young children with potential adoptive parents. When combined with the push to complete care proceedings within 26 weeks, and the research evidence about the fragility of reunification in some circumstances, this could serve to heighten doubts about the value of FDAC’s focus on supporting reunification in cases where that is appropriate. [Hayes, Derren. 26-week target ‘could limit help for substance misusing parents’  [Children & Young People Now, 01.05.14]

Reporting restrictions and transparency – a glimmer of hope?

There are long-standing and well-established “automatic restraints” on the publication of information relating to proceedings under the Children Act 1989. Section 97 of the Act provides that:
(2) No person shall publish [F3to the public at large or any section of the public] any material which is intended, or likely, to identify
(a) any child as being involved in any proceedings before [F4the High Court, a county court or] a magistrates’ court in which any power under this Act [F2or the Adoption and Children Act 2002] may be exercised by the court with respect to that or any other child; or
(b) An address or school as being that of a child involved in any such proceedings.

In addition to the “automatic restraints” courts can make injunctions preventing parents from discussing their legal cases with other parties even after the proceedings have been completed. However, parents who have lost confidence in the English family court system often turn to other organisations for support. A potential conflict thus arises between the parents’ rights for free speech and the child’s life to a private life, and numerous authorities have grappled with this issue in recent times. For example, in November 2014 the EU parliament’s Petitions Committee condemned “unacceptable” moves to pressure people from giving evidence to MEPs at a time when most complaints about forced adoption or the unjust loss of children to social services are coming from Britain. “In my experience, the UK is unique in Europe for the secrecy of its family courts and for the threats and bullying by authorities of parents who want to speak out about their treatment,” said Tatiana Zdanoka, a Latvian MEP [Waterfield, Parents fight British social services ‘gag’ to petition European Parliament. In The Telegraph, 12.11.14]

In Re J  [Re J (A Child) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam)] the father of four children, all of whom had been the subject of care proceedings, posted a film of the execution of the emergency protection order in respect of his youngest child. The film was shared on Facebook and YouTube. The issue for the court was whether or not there was justification for extending J’s anonymity after the care proceedings were over. The President of the Family Division agreed that the case raised “important questions about the extent to which the public should be able to read and see what disgruntled parents say when they speak out about what they see as deficiencies in the family justice system”. He made an order contra mundum, but the restriction was only against the publication of J’s name, not his image, largely because internet viewers are unlikely to be able to identify a one day old baby.

The President expressed his view at paragraph 71 of his judgment:

The father wishes to share such information with others and, so long as he keeps within the confines of section 12 of the 1960 Act, why should he not be able to do so? And why should those who may wish to hear his views not be permitted to approach him?


Having considered orders frequently made in private and public law, it is my view that parents’ rights are often disregarded in favour of children’s rights.

Choudhry and Herring attempt to answer the question: why is it that children’s interests should be seen as being particularly important as compared to the interests of an adult? They suggest that an order which is interfering in a child’s right to private or family life is likely to be “far more of a blight” than an identical order on an adult’s life. This is because the child is less equipped to deal with setbacks in their interests and life changes. They lack practical possibilities of remaking life plans, experience, maturity and even intelligence to develop alternatives. Moving them from a place where they have an established set of friends would be particularly disturbing for a child. [Choudhry and Herring/ European Human Rights and Family Law/ Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010, 234.]

This is, of course, true – but the result of the current policy of intervention is exactly that: many children are moved from their homes, parents, friends, siblings. Two younger children in the Webster family, for example, have never even met their siblings.

At a Multi-Disciplinary Conference “Is the child protection system fit for purpose?” (01.06.2015) recently retired High Court Judge Sir Mark Hedley suggested that children who have been removed from their parents may grow up and challenge the Local Authority: “What have you done to keep me in my family?”


Bainham, Andrew, and Gilmore, Stephen/ Children – the Modern Law/ Fourth edition/ Bristol: Jordan Publishing Limited, 2013.
Choudhry, Shazia and Herring, Jonathan (2010)/ European Human Rights and Family Law/ Oxford: Hart Publishing
Gilbert, Neil; Parton, Nigel and Skivens, Marit/ Child Protection Systems: International Trades and Orientations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Hendrick, Judith (2005.) Law and Ethics in Nursing and Health Care/ New York: Nelson Thornes Ltd.
Herring, Jonathan (2012.) Family Law/ London: Routledge.
McCall Smith, Alexander (1990). Is anything left of parental rights? In Sutherland and McCall Smith Family Rights: Family Law and Medical Ethics/ Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Sawyer, Caroline (2009.) Children’s Representation by Their Parents/ in Responsible Parents and Parental Responsibility. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 215-235.

Periodical articles:

Baksi, Catherine/ Family lawyers sound alarm on separating parents/ The Law Society Gazette, 14.08.14

Booker, Christopher. The real story of the ‘baby with no name’/ In the Telegraph, 31.05.14

Craig, Olga. Stolen by the state: A story of love and loss that’ll make you seethe – a mother falsely accused of abuse reveals her relentless hunt for her three babies. In the Mail on Sunday, 06.06.15

Family Justice Reforms to Benefit Children – Press release – GOV.UK/ 22.04.14

Fathers4Justice campaigner jailed for defacing Queen’s portrait. The Guardian, 05.02.14

Hayes, Derren. 26-week target ‘could limit help for substance misusing parents’ | Children &
Young People Now, 01.05.14

Lord Wilson gives the Denning Society Lecture at Lincoln’s Inn: Adoption: Complexities beyond the Law, 13 November 2014, The Supreme Court.

The Narey Report on Adoption: Our Blueprint for Britain’s Lost Children. /The Times. July 5, 2011

Waterfield, Bruno (2014.) Parents fight British social services ‘gag’ to petition European Parliament. In The Telegraph, 12.11.14


Adoption Act 2002
The Children Act 1989
The Children and Families Act 2014


Borough of Poole v W & another [2014] EWHC 1777 (Fam)
Hertfordshire County Council v F & Others [2014] EWHC 2159 (Fam) (23 May 2014
Re B-S (Children) [2013] EWCA Civ 1146
Re J (A Child) [2013] EWHC 2694 (Fam)
Webster v Norfolk County Council and the Children/ by Their Children’s Guardian [2009] EWCA Civ 59
X Council v B (Emergency Protection Orders) [2004] EWHC 2015 (Fam), [2005] 1 FLR 342