The Solicitors Journal has highlighted one particular aspect of a press conference recently held by Sir James Munby.
As President of the Family Division, Sir James is the most senior family law judge in the country, and as such, his views carry weight. When he speaks, people listen, even if their own views differ.
At the conference, held to mark recent major changes to the family law system, the President was asked about the pressure exerted on local authorities to place more children for adoption. The government has even threatened to remove powers from them if they fail to do so. This contrasts rather tellingly with the influential Supreme Court decision in Re B (A Child), last summer. In that case, their Lordships declared that “adoption of a child against her parents’ wishes should only be contemplated as a last resort – when all else fails.”
Asked about the issue, the President responded:
“I’d be foolish not to acknowledge as I do that there is a clear tension between what the Supreme Court said in “Re: B” in I think the summer of last year and what the Government had said in guidance which it issued only a few months before in the spring of last year, the tension being that whereas the Supreme Court said that adoption is the last resort, the Government, as I recall in the guidance it gave, said that local authorities should get away from the idea that adoption is the last resort.”
“So there is a tension there but under our system Parliament makes the law; the judges interpret the law and if the Parliament does not agree with the judges’ interpretation of the statute they passed, then the remedy is for Parliament to change the law.”
Therefore, he acknowledged, “for the directors of social services; for the social workers dealing with adoption cases; it must be slightly difficult to know exactly what they should be doing given that tension.”
Social work must be a thankless task – the proverbial dirty job that someone has to do, and it isn’t made any easier by heavy-handed government interventions. Rescuing vulnerable children from abuse or neglect could not be a worthier cause but taking such kids into care does mean intervening in perhaps the most personal of all bonds – that between parent and child. The parents may genuinely believe the intervention was unnecessary, that they were not been given a fair chance to deal with their problems before their family was severed. The children too may not fully understand why they were catapulted into the care system and grow up full of resentment and confusion.
And yet nobody could deny that care is the only feasible option for many troubled families and absolutely the right thing to do. The question is, what happens next?
The current government seems to have fallen in love with the idea of adoption as the solution to all care issues, and on the face of it , a new life with a stable and happy new family seems like a very desirable end result. But like so many such government agendas, good intentions can quickly get lost in a blizzard of box ticking and quota fulfilment heedless of individual circumstances.
It costs a lot of money to keep children in care, and such children effectively have to grow up without parents. But even those lucky children who do find new families may come from troubled backgrounds and be afflicted by behavioural and emotional issues that can prove a terrible burden to even the most well-intentioned of adoptive parents. Adoption breakdowns are not unknown.
It is credit to our justice system that judges do take adoption as seriously as they do. As the President himself noted last year:
“When a family judge makes a placement order or an adoption order in relation to a twenty-year old mother’s baby, the mother will have to live with the consequences of that decision for what may be upwards of 60 or even 70 years, and the baby for what may be upwards of 80 or even 90 years.”
You can be sure the government agenda-setters pressuring local councils to increase the number of adoptions in their area have not given the idea quite such careful thought.