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Court of Appeal refuses to revoke adoption orders

Date:12 FEB 2009

The Court of Appeal yesterday handed down its judgments for W (Children). It has refused biological parents, Mr and Mrs Webster, permission to apply to set aside the care, freeing for adoption and adoption orders made in the county court relating to their three oldest children, known only as A, B and C. This is depite the Court accepting that it is possible that the basis upon which the children were taken into care and subsequently adopted was wrong.

The three children were adopted in December 2005. Mr and Mrs Webster's fourth child, who is now 2-years-old, is living with them without any court involvement.

Care proceedings were taken by Norfolk County Council on the basis that child B had suffered non-accidental injuries inflicted by one or both of his parents. However, evidence obtained in 2007 indicated that child B may not have been the subject of deliberate injury; rather that his fractures were attributable to scurvy and/or iron deficiency due to the fact that in the year leading up to the proceedings he had a feeding disorder and had consumed nothing but soya milk.

The case emphasises the finality of adoption orders. An adopted child, in the words of section 67 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 is treated "as if born as the child of the adopters".

The circumstances in which adoption orders can be revoked or set aside are extremely limited and none applied in the present case. The court concluded that after three years it was in any event too late to set the orders aside, and that it would not be in the interests of the children to do so.

The Court of Appeal came to the clear view that:

  • the injuries suffered by child B had a high specificity for abuse;
  • the doctors who provided reports for the proceedings and gave evidence to the circuit judge in 2004 did so honestly, competently and in good faith;
  • non-accidental injury is infinitely more common than scurvy; and
  • the medical evidence obtained in 2007 could and should have been obtained by the parents in 2004.

Mr and Mrs Webster believe that they have suffered a miscarriage of justice.

Speaking to the BBC, Mrs Webster said: "They've only skimmed the surface. They haven't dug deeper"

"You see cases on the news about people harming their children.

"It's beyond belief that we were put in a similar pigeonhole to that."

Mrs Webster told the BBC the couple would meet their lawyers to decide on their next course of action.

"On the one hand they (the judges) are saying it's in our favour and they fully understand why we're doing what we're doing.

"But on the other hand they're saying they can't help us.

"We're going to discuss with our legal team where we go from here."

Lisa Christensen, Director of Norfolk County Council Children's Services, said: "I welcome the judgement; particularly its recognition of the permanency of adoption and the stability this brings for hundreds of children.

"Norfolk County Council has always endeavoured to explore, in a fair and measured way, all of the issues raised by Mr and Mrs Webster and I welcome Lord Justice Wall's conclusion that it would be wrong to criticise any of the social workers or the doctors who advised the earlier proceedings.

"When there are significant concerns about the welfare of a child or children, staff have a duty to act and are subject to public criticism if they fail to intervene. In 2004, the medical evidence was unanimous and we clearly had a duty to place the matter before the court. I am certain we would have been open to justifiable criticism had we not done so.

"Lord Justice Wall makes it clear we will never now be able to fully reinvestigate what happened to child B and we can never know what the outcome of such an investigation would have been.

"I do have sympathy with Mr and Mrs Webster but I believe we were absolutely right to place this matter before the court in 2004, based on the medical evidence available, and this is reflected in the judgement. This is an exceptional case, which will bring learning for everyone involved, and we will now take time to read and digest the judgement in full."