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Re P-B (A Child) [2006] EWCA Civ 1016

Mother’s appeal against care order and placement order made in single reserved judgment dismissed.

Court of Appeal: Thorpe, Arden and Wilson LJJ (15 June 2006)

Mother's appeal against care order and placement order made in single reserved judgment dismissed.

This case concerned a child born in July 2002; his unmarried parents had cohabited during the course of their relationship, but were now living separately. The mother suffered from an Asperger's-type condition, and her problems were compounded by post-natal depression suffered after the child's birth.

In April 2004, the child was diagnosed with an acute form of leukaemia, which would require high standards of care and ongoing medical treatment. In July 2004, the local authority, who had attempted to support the mother, applied for an emergency protection order and a care order; and, since that date, the child remained in foster care under a series of interim care orders during the preparation towards trial.

In January 2006, the judge made an order reducing the level of the mother's contact with the child; at that stage, there had been seven care plans, all of which provided for ultimate rehabilitation. However, in February 2006, the local authority filed a further care plan which now recommended adoption instead of rehabilitation, a course influenced in part by the report of a child and adolescent consultant psychiatrist, introduced into the proceedings by a directions order in November 2005.

At the pre-trial review in February, the local authority indicated that they would place the child's case before the next meeting of the adoption panel, which was due to take place on the same day as the start of the trial, 6 March; further, the authority indicated that, if the panel favoured the adoption proposal, it would apply at once for a placement order.

The trial commenced on 6 March, on which date the adoption panel approved the adoption plan, and the application for the placement order was before the judge on 9 March. At the end of the trial, in a reserved judgment, the judge granted the local authority's applications for the care order and for the placement order.

The mother appealed on two grounds: the first was a complaint of procedural unfairness, in that she had been faced with the emotional turmoil of contested care proceedings, with the risk of losing her child, and she had then had to respond and adjust to the application for a placement order, without the opportunity to prepare a carefully considered response to the application and related issues of contact; the second ground of appeal was directed at the judge's conclusions on the evidence, principally attacking the judge's acceptance of the consultant psychiatrist's evidence.

Held, dismissing the appeal, that the judge had been entitled to order the consolidation and to rule on the placement order application in the single reserved judgment; also, he had been entitled to rely on the opinion of the consultant psychiatrist.

In relation to the point of statutory construction raised by the first ground of appeal, the court accepted submissions that the local authority has two quite separate functions in this field: it protects, supports and assists children under Parts III and IV of the Children Act 1989; and it is an adoption agency under the terms of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. While the authority, in discharging its Children Act obligations, may declare in its care plan that adoption is the right route for a child, it is not until the adoption panel has accepted the proposal that the local authority, acting this time in its role as adoption agency, must take a decision to endorse the positive recommendation of the panel in order to complete the statutory process. Accordingly, it would have been premature to apply for the placement order any sooner.

Read the full text of the judgment

Digest prepared by Peter Smith