Britain’s most senior family judge has issued a pointed warning that Michael Gove’s drive to speed up adoptions should not be allowed to break up families unnecessarily.
By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor11:58AM BST 17 Sep 2013
Sir James Munby, the President of the High Court Family Division, said judges are becoming increasingly alarmed at the number of social services departments attempting to have children adopted apparently without even considering less “drastic” measures.
He said it was time to “call a halt” to the tendency to apply for adoption orders based on “sloppy” or non-existent assessment of alternatives which would not irrevocably break-up families.
In a blistering assessment of the current climate in family courts, he said it appeared some councils were now “unable or unwilling” to explore alternatives to adoption.
It come against the backdrop of a major push led by the Education Secretary to speed up the adoption process.Councils are seen as taking too long to process adoptions are already being effectively named and shamed.
Crucially, under a Bill currently before Parliament, they will soon have a legal requirement to complete the process within six months, from taking a child into care to securing an adoption order from a court.
Sir James said that in theory this should be possible as long as courts took a “robust” approach to legal delays.
But he warned that if councils did not provide a good enough case for adoption judges would have no alternative but to go beyond the Government’s deadline.
He said: “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.”
Sitting with two of the most senior judges in the country – the Master of the Rolls, Lord Dyson and Lady Justice Black, Sir James spoke of a “lamentable state of affairs” in some cases.
“This sloppy practice must stop,” he said.
“It is simply unacceptable in a forensic context where the issues are so grave and the stakes, for both child and parent, so high.”
Setting out the basic principles judges should consider he emphasised that courts should “never lose sight” of the fact that the interests of a child “include being brought up by the natural family, ideally by the natural parents” unless there are overriding welfare considerations.
He spoke of adoption being a “last resort” and of a need to aim for the “least interventionist” approach.
“We make no apologies for having canvassed these matters in such detail and at such length … too often they are given scant attention or afforded little more than lip service,” he added.
The tone of the remarks contrast with that struck by Mr Gove, who has repeatedly warned of councils failing to intervene more and earlier to rescue children from neglect and place them with loving, permanent families.
Last year he warned that the emphasis on leaving children with their biological parents was sometimes condemning them to a “life of soiled nappies and scummy baths, chaos and hunger, hopelessness and despair”.
Sir James was speaking as the Court of Appeal rejected a legal challenge by a mother whose two children are being adopted.
The court heard that in that case the children had had “terrible experiences”.