The High Court has dismissed an appeal against a ruling which gave a mother one last chance to care for her two youngest children.
In Surrey County Council v S the woman had five children altogether: a 20 year-old, two teenagers, and two toddlers aged three and two. The fathers of the three youngest children were not involved in their lives and none of the fathers took part in the subsequent legal proceedings.
At the Court of Appeal in London, Lord Justice Ryder explained:
“This is a neglect case. The local authority has been involved with the mother and her children since 1995. The historic picture put before the court was bleak. It was alleged that the mother had failed to provide boundaries for her children, failed to supervise them, neglected them, was responsible for their poor school attendance, antisocial behaviour, drug use and criminality.”
Surrey County Council launched care proceedings in relation to the younger children. They were thought to be at risk of harm due to the mother’s emotional instability, history of not co-operating with care professionals and “the effect that a likely repetition of the history of her care of the elder children would have on the younger children’s emotional development and well being”.
But at a hearing in Guildford, family law specialist Judge Cushing ordered that the two youngest children should instead remain under the supervision of the local authority for a period of 12 months via a ‘supervision order’.
Lord Justice Ryder said the “express basis” of this arrangement was that it represented “the last chance for the mother to look after her children.”
The order was open to extension by the courts and the mother failed to respond to the opportunity appropriately, the toddlers could be taken back into care with a view to placing them for adoption.
The local authority unsuccessfully appealed this ruling. Lord Justice Ryder said:
“Given the factual context, the judge’s decision to grant supervision orders to the local authority rather than care orders with a view to adoption was brave and may have been, as she acknowledged, both difficult and marginal, but that does not mean that it was wrong.”
In making her judgement, said Lord Justice Ryder, Judge Cushing had been aware that she was going against the advice of the expert witnesses who had been involved in the care proceedings, including the children’s legal guardian and the social worker. However, said Lord Justice Ryder:
“Her judgment is an exercise in reasoning why she disagreed with them. She was not obliged to take each witness’s evidence, deconstruct it and re-construct her own reasoning in judgment. As long as clear and coherent reasons are demonstrated, the judge will have performed her task.”
The Court of Appeal drew up a “balance sheet” for the case, setting the mother’s poor history and emotional problems against current improvements in her living conditions, parenting abilities and behaviour.
The evidence presented by Surrey County Council had made a case for the risks associated with leaving the children in the care of their mother, but, said the Lord Justice, it “did not of necessity demonstrate that adoption was the preferred or only option.”
“In any event, experts advise and judges decide. A judge is entitled to reason her disagreement with an opinion proffered to the court. Even if a judge accepts expert evidence, its weight in an analysis or evaluative exercise is still a matter for the judge.”
Read the full judgement here.
Photo by AdamRozanas via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence