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A week in family law: adoption, an unexpected Supreme Court judgment and more

I usually try to include at least one light-hearted story in my weekly review, but it has all been pretty serious this week:

Councils will save hundreds of millions of pounds over the next ten years because of its adoption reforms, the government has claimed. An impact assessment on the Children and Social Work Bill 2016-17 found that as much as £310 million could be saved over that period, through more looked-after children being adopted and fewer fostering placements being needed. However, a spokesperson for Fostering Network, the leading fostering charity, questioned the savings claim and said that while the proposals will speed up the process of adoption for those for whom it’s considered to be in the best interest, the number of children freed for adoption would likely remain relatively static. Whatever, it all seems a little distasteful to me to think in monetary terms of a reform affecting the lives of so many children.

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has ordered that the fact-finding hearing should be reheard, in a care case where the parents had had their child adopted. The decision was made following the couple’s acquittal of criminal charges of causing injuries to their child. In the case an adoption order was made in 2015 but further expert evidence was produced at the subsequent criminal trial. The prosecution against the parents was later abandoned and they were acquitted, on the basis that there was no case to answer. The birth parents then appealed against the original fact-finding decision in the care proceedings. The appeal was supported by the child’s guardian and the adoptive parents, but the adoptive parents have indicated that they would oppose any application to set aside the adoption order. It is very unusual for an adoption order to be set aside, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the rehearing takes place in October.

A report upon the recent increases in fees for court and tribunal proceedings has been published by the House of Commons Justice Committee. The committee said that the increase in the fee on divorce petitions from £410 to £550 was unjustified, and called for it to be rescinded. The average cost of uncontested proceedings is estimated to be only £270, and therefore the fee amounted to a tax on divorce. Whilst acknowledging that Ministry of Justice finances had not been ring-fenced from austerity, the committee warned that: “Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost-recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.” Clearly, however, the fee increases are denying many access to justice.

Perhaps the biggest family law-related story this week relates to the terribly sad Ellie Butler case, in which her father Ben Butler was convicted at the Old Bailey on Tuesday of murdering her. The family law link is that Ellie had been removed from her father’s care after her father had been arrested for assaulting her (he was later convicted). In 2007 the family court found that her father had caused her a serious injury, and placed her with her grandparents. However, her father’s conviction was subsequently quashed and in 2012 Mrs Justice Hogg overturned the previous findings and Ellie was returned to him, just eleven months before she was murdered. Mrs Justice Hogg’s decision has been heavily criticised in the media. Unfortunately, her judgment is no longer available, so it is difficult to comment, save to say that hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing.

Lastly, in a judgment that came as a surprise to many, the Supreme Court has ruled that it does not have jurisdiction to hear a second appeal in a case concerning the recognition of a Romanian custody order. In In the Matter of D (A Child) the child had been born in Romania in 2006, but his parents subsequently moved to this country. They separated in 2007 and the child remained in this country with his mother, but the father returned to Romania. A Romanian court subsequently made a custody order in the father’s favour. The father sought to have the order recognised and enforced over here, but this was refused. The father appealed to the Court of Appeal, but his appeal was turned down. He therefore sought to appeal again, to the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court has held that under the regulations governing the recognition of orders made by EU courts (known as ‘Brussels II’), it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal, which was therefore struck out. It all seems a little odd that a case cannot be dealt with by our Supreme Court, but there we are.

Have a good weekend.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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