18 Dec 2013

‘Troubled’, judge releases critical ruling in grandparents’ adoption case

A family court judge has taken the unusual step of releasing a judgement into the case of Essex grandparents who were fighting to prevent their granddaughter from being adopted.

His Honour Judge Newton agreed to the publication of the judgement following an application from Channel 4 News, which was supported by the grandparents.

The judgement, dated November 15, 2012,  followed an appeal by the grandparents, Katrina and Lee Parker, who had been excluded from the care proceedings.  By the time it had been agreed they could appeal against this, the Parkers’ granddaughter was two days away from being adopted.

Pre News refresh player – this is the default player for the C4 news site – please do not delete. Ziad

Judge Newton granted Mr and Mrs Parker, from Colchester, the right to apply for guardianship of India, now aged two.  In the strongly worded judgement he is critical both of the local authority involved in the proceedings and of the judicial process.

He said that a previous court hearing in October in which the Parkers were excluded was “manifestly unfair”.  He said: “It was manifestly unjust, not just to the grandparents but to ‘P’ (who we are now allowed to name as India, the granddaughter) and could in no circumstances be thought to be European Court of Human Rights compliant.”  In other words,  both the grandparents and the granddaughter’s human rights had been breached because they were denied, under article 6, the right to a fair trial.

Last week Channel 4 News revealed what had happened to the Parkers during their fight to keep their granddaughter.  They were critical both of Essex local authority and the secrecy of the family court system which prevented them from speaking out.

It was only because they eventually won and were allowed to bring India home in August that we were able to report some details of the case.  But we were not – until now – allowed to say what happened in the court, nor were we able to say what the judgement in that crucial appeal had been.

What we were allowed to say was that the Parkers had firstly not been told their granddaughter had been taken in to care after their daughter was no longer able to look after her.

They were then excluded from applying to be part of the care proceedings.

They had their legal aid withdrawn and had no legal representation when they stood before Judge Newton.

Now we can see that when he heard their case, Judge Newton was “deeply troubled about what occurred”.  He says:  “Without any hesitation, I give Mr and Mrs P permission to appeal.”  He goes on to say that they should have legal representation and legal aid.

Like all family court cases, there is a degree of complexity, although the judgement is simple and to the point. But what we can now report is that having learned their granddaughter had been taken into care, the Parkers applied to have contact.

But in an August hearing, a solicitor from the firm originally representing the Parkers told a hearing that they no longer wished to be part of the proceedings.  Even now the Parkers do not know why he said this and it was not true.  But it was to have a bearing on the October hearing when they were excluded from proceedings.

The Parkers have six children, five of them still at home.  In a viability assessment commissioned by Essex and carried out by an independent social worker described as highly experienced, it is stated that the social worker did not support their application for any form of order.  She said that the grandparents would be unable to meet the child’s needs, given their busy lifestyle and the number of children already in their care.

The local authority then submitted to the court that because of this report they opposed the grandparents’ application.   That October judgement said “The local authority’s plan is for [redacted] to be in a permanent secure placement away from the birth family at this stage.”

They also invited the court to discharge the maternal grandparents as parties to the proceedings.  The court at the October hearing duly agreed.

Mr and Mrs Parker had tried to submit that the viability assessment was only a “snapshot” of their family at the time.  This was rejected.

And that is what Judge Newton appears to be so angry about.

He says that they were not given their voice, they were not allowed to put their side nor to cross examine the witnesses.  He is also critical that the court at the time appears to have relied on a  “submission that was not made”.  In other words, the false claim that the grandparents had withdrawn their application.

Judge Newton said:  “We are dealing here with interested grandparents, and the law could not be clearer.  None of the case law seems to have been brought to the justices’ attention.

“It is overwhelmingly obvious that in circumstances where grandparents wish to argue that their interest in their grandchild when before the court, the court should welcome that opportunity of hearing the grandparents’ contribution and case.”

And he adds:  “I am deeply anxious about what occurred.  I am deeply anxious that it has been necessary for this matter to be dealt with in the way that it has.”

Judge Newton does warn the Parkers that they have a significant hurdle to overcome because of that viability assessment and that by granting the appeal he was not indicating what “might ultimately happen”.

But for the Parkers it was a glimmer of hope.  It took them until the following July to fight the case.  But they did win.

Yet what their case highlights is the considerable difficulties of family court cases. And yesterday this was reinforced by Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court.  Following the case of the baby of a mentally ill Italian woman who gave gave birth following a caesarean section, Sir James said that radical changes to end the culture of secrecy in the family courts were needed.

Judge Newton, who also presided over the care proceedings in the Italian case, had already published his judgement explaining why he was supporting Essex local authority in an application for the baby to be adopted.

What happened to the Parkers is entirely different, although it is the same judge and the same local authority. Yet Mrs Parker wept as she recalled those moments when she thought they were going to lose India:

“The possibility of not having her in our lives, that is so difficult to bear.  We could have lost her, we might not have her now.”

Last week Essex County Council said in a statement:

“This case involved very complex and finely balanced decisions which took account of a range of professional advice. As the case progressed Essex County Council was able to change its position to support these grandparents but at all times the final decision was one to be taken by the courts.”

This week, we went back to Essex but they refused to comment further.  So we are still unclear about when it was they changed their position to support the grandparents.  Nor are we clear on why they did not include the grandparents in the initial care proceedings, as is recommended under the Children Act 1989.

What the Parkers are clear about is that this is not a “social worker bashing exercise”.  They said it was just a few that they came up against.  But they also say how grateful they are to those social workers who went out of their way to help them.

Their desire to speak out is driven, though, by the shock they still have today of discovering that grandparents do not have any rights under these circumstances.

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Read more: Why are family courts so secretive? And will it change?



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