Essex County Council Ordered to Pay £14,000 Adopters Legal Costs – Judge Says They Acted Unreasonably
An order that Essex County Council have been ordered to pay £14,000 legal costs to prospective adopters highlights the challenges facing couples wanting to adopt. The Essex adopters vitally needed an adoption support package designed for a very damaged child they wanted to adopt.
In a hard hitting judgement published this week, Her Honour, Judge Lynn Roberts said that Essex County Council had acted unreasonably:
- I do consider that they have been unreasonable throughout.
- I also am strongly of the view that if the proposed adopters had not secured expert legal advice one of two things would have happened: either the placement would have broken down because the appropriate support was not in place, or the adoption would have gone ahead but without the support which all now agree is necessary, which would have meant that K and his parents would continue to struggle.
- It appears to me that the local authority were slow to recognise the extent of this child’s difficulties, the demands his care was making on the proposed adopters, the necessity for there to be comprehensive assessments of all of this, and to think creatively as to how this adoption could be made a success for this family.
- There has been great delay throughout by the local authority
- There has been a failure to focus and to accept that there needed to be a full assessment leading to a plan which was not a standard plan with add-ons, but one designed particularly for this child and this family.
Noel and Sharon P (their names have been changed to protect their identity) had been approved for adoption. They were offered K as a child whom they could adopt.
They needed to know about K’s family history and genetics. They had been told he had slight developmental delay. When they said they were prepared to adopt K, they headed to the adoption panel and learnt at the last moment there were going to be more genetic tests. The panel meeting was delayed. Assured that the condition he had been tested for had not been found, they pressed on.
He was signed off by the children’s hospital with the message that he was “a little behind in his speech”. Concerned about his initial response to them, Noel and Sharon were told that this was a normal attachment response. So they kept pressing for adoption.
K was placed with them in 2011. Since then he has been diagnosed as having severe global developmental delay, attachment disorder, learning difficulties, and severe mental health issues.
The judge commented :
“K was placed with the prospective adopters on 4th August 2011 at the age of 22 months. He is now 5 years old, he has a wide range of needs and he is a very challenging child to parent. It is accepted by all that at the time he was placed the extent of his difficulties had not been understood. As a result, the proposed adopters found themselves parenting a child with an array of problems, and Essex had not identified either the difficulties or the support which would be needed at an early stage.”
After K was placed pressure was applied by Essex on Noel and Sharon to file the application for adoption. Social workers were changed. There was talk of a support plan but no assessment was carried out that complied with the Adoption and Children Act 2002.
In 2013 they finally gave in and applied for K’s adoption without an adequate support plan.
Noel and Sharon consulted adoption law specialists, Ridley & Hall, to challenge the county council.
Under pressure from their solicitors and the court, Essex eventually accepted they could not do the assessment. They paid for an independent expert team to do it.
The report came up with proposals; a key message was that if this placement failed, K’s prospects were extremely bleak. There was more negotiation between the lawyers. Eventually an agreed plan was finally put before the court 16 months after the adoption application had been filed and over 3 years after K had been placed with his new family.
Three years later, in November 2014, the adoption order was finally made. The parents have just had their adoption celebration at Chelmsford County Court.
Commenting, Nigel Priestley, Senior Partner at Ridley & Hall in Huddersfield, said, “Many people must wonder why it took so long. Less committed couples would have thrown in the towel years ago.
“Noel and Sharon’s story is one that many adopters will sadly recognise and relate to. Sharon was meant to be going back to part time working but in 6 months K had 28 separate medical appointments. Caring for him is a full time job.”
Noel commented, “Essex didn’t understand how the pressure from K’s behaviour was building and Sharon became seriously ill. We realised we needed legal representation. An inadequate support plan was prepared. It did not begin to address K’s complex needs. The adoption application was adjourned. Then another support plan appeared again without a proper assessment of K.
“We tried to negotiate changes to the plan. Social services and the independent reviewing officer said that this was the final version. There could be no additional support.
“We were told we would have to legally challenge Essex County Council to get any other support. They were hopeless.
“The approach of the local authority was a disgrace. They viewed the case as being a battle they intended to win. We had to seek specialist legal representation because nothing else would change the county council’s attitude. They fought us all the way. When we asked the judge for an order that the council contribute to our costs, they told the judge she shouldn’t make them do it.
“We are delighted by the judge’s decision to make Essex pay towards our costs.”
Nigel Priestley commented, “The government want more adoptions. They want to see hard to place children finding homes in loving families. If other local authorities act like Essex it will be impossible for this key policy to succeed. Why should adopters have to fight for support and risk their own money in this way?”
“There is no legal aid for contests over support plans. The costs in this case ran to five figures before Essex were told to pay. They tried to persuade the judge that they weren’t responsible. These costs were incurred to enable K to be cared for in a loving adoptive family.
“The local authority knew that they would have to find a specialist foster placement or residential home for K if this placement failed. Essex attitude was inexplicable.”
Nigel Priestley writes a column for Adoption UK magazine. Ridley & Hall are one of the country’s leading adoption law specialists. For any legal advice regarding adoption, please contact our specialist service, the Adoption Legal Centre on 0843 8866386.