29 MAY 2015
Coventry City Council v M and H
Care and placement proceedings in relation to four children concluded with final care orders on a plan of long-term fostering for the two older children, J and C and placement orders for the two younger children, B and S. All the children had exhibited extreme behaviours and there was evidence that they had reacted adversely after contact with members of the birth family. Inter-sibling contact had been marred by conflict and aggression.
The final care plans at the start of the final hearing provided only for a final 'goodbye' contact between each of the children and the parents and separate placements for each of them. The plans were however amended during the course of the final hearing to allow for bi-monthly contact between the parents and B and S respectively until such time as adoptive placements were identified for either or both, at which point it would reduce to letterbox contact only. In relation to J and C (who were the most severely affected in the sibling group), the amended care plans in essence provided for no direct contact between them and the parents but subject to review as and when they became settled in their new placements and also after consideration of the inter-relationship between parental contact and inter-sibling contact. The care plans as amended were approved by HHJ Watson along with the final orders.
An issue arose as to whether, in the event that the local authority in future wished to bring an end to direct contact between the parents and J and C, it would be necessary for it to seek further judicial authorisation by way of a 'no contact' order under s 34(4) Children Act 1989. The matter turned on whether the correct interpretation of the duty to allow 'reasonable contact' under section 34(1) could be discharged by the provision of indirect contact only or whether the reference to reasonable contact in this context meant reasonable direct contact. It was contended on the part of the Mother that the latter was the correct interpretation of the legislation. In obiter remarks, the judge drew attention to the lack of direct authority on the point. It was her view that, if in due course 'sibling contact is predicated on no parental contact, the Local Authority would be well advised to seek s 34(4) orders if there is no agreement, although I would expect that agreement from the parents to no contact to be a minimum requirement for prospective adopters contemplating sibling contact post-adoption' [para 137].
These remarks lean towards the view that reasonable contact in the context of s 34 means reasonable direct contact, it being the case that as 'looked after' children J and C remain subject to the s 34 regime while in long-term foster care. The point however remains uncertain and is in urgent need of clarification by the higher courts, potentially affecting as it does very large numbers of children in the care of local authorities.
The full judgment is attached below
IN THE COUNTY COURT AT COVENTRY
Case No: CV14C00965
23 March 2015
HONOUR JUDGE WATSON
B E T W E E N:
COVENTRY CITY COUNCIL
M and H
Transcript from a recording by Ubiqus
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CLAIRE BRIGGS appeared on behalf of the Applicant
ANDREW BAINHAM appeared on behalf of the Respondent Mother
EVELEIGH-WINSTONE appeared on behalf of the Respondent Father
ALLEN appeared on behalf of the Children
appeared In Person
appeared In Person