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Family Care Proceedings - a risk of future harm

26 Sep 2013, 17:39 by Priya Bakshi

Labels: adoption, appeal, barrister, care, court, direct-access, family-law, interim-care-order, judge, lawyer, public-access, supervised-contact

The case of Re B (A Child) [2013] UKSC 33 concerned an appeal made by parents to the Supreme Court in relation to a final care order made under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989. 

Both parents suffered from psychological problems. The mother had been diagnosed with somatisation disorder and a psychiatric condition involving the deliberate fabrication or exaggeration of symptoms. She had had significant difficulties in her life early on, having been abused by her step-father. She also had criminal convictions relating to fraud and dishonesty. The father too had a history of criminality and drug abuse.    

The child, A, was removed from her parents at birth and placed in foster care under an interim care order.  While the child was in foster care, the parents frequently had supervised contact with her, developing a positive and committed relationship. The question was not whether the child
had suffered harm attributable to the parents' care but whether the child was likely to suffer significant harm due to the risks posed by the parents. The local authority's plan was adoption for the child.

The trial judge held that the parents did pose a risk to the child. The bond formed between the A and her parents was not doubted. However if the child was placed in her parents' care there was a risk of significant harm to A caused by the mother's somatisation disorder and her psychiatric condition, and that A might grow up to copy her mother's behaviour. It was also found that the father was not capable of protecting A from harm. Therefore in weighing up all the factors, a care order with a view to adoption was needed to prevent such harm to A. The Court of Appeal upheld that judgment.

The Supreme Court too agreed with the trial judge by a majority of 4:1 and dismissed the parents appeal, concluding that the threshold conditions for making the care order had been satisfied in this case. The Supreme Court dealt with a number of issues.    

Before a care order is made the judge has to be satisfied that: (a) the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm; and (b) the harm or likelihood of harm is attributable to the care likely to be given to the child if a care order is not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to the child, or to the child's being beyond parental control. A common sense approach should be taken to the meaning of ‘significant'. ‘Likelihood' was confirmed to mean no more than a ‘real possibility'.

The causation required is only as between the care and the harm but in
this case the character of the parents was relevant to each stage of the
inquiry. 

Article 8 of the ECHR is not engaged when the court assesses whether
there was ‘significant harm'. It is engaged only once the court determines whether or not a care or supervision order should be made.  If the decision is that adoption is necessary, or that a child should be placed under care with a view to adoption, a high degree of justification is needed under Article 8. Adoption must be the last resort and all other options must be explored. 

The appellate court must approach cautiously in overturning the trial
judge's decision; the test is whether the decision was ‘wrong' (not ‘plainly
wrong'). Further, where Convention rights are engaged, the appellate court is not required to determine afresh issues; it is only required to review the
lower court's decision.

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