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Family Courts (Reform)

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

The Petition of The Pullen Family,

Declares that a recent case in the Family Court has highlighted an injustice in the current system. The daughter of Rachel Pullen has been put up for adoption because she is alleged, by Nottingham City Council, to be too ill for her mother to care for her. The Council assessed Rachel Pullen as ‘not having the capacity to give instructions to your solicitor’. As a consequence the Official Solicitor was instructed to represent her. This case demonstrates that there is a conflict of interest under current legislation which works against the interests of parents. The Petitioners believe that judgements on an individual’s competence should be made by a fully independent authority to ensure justice is both done and seen to be done.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to legislate to prevent courts from accepting the opinion of experts paid by the local authority as to the capacity of parties to give instructions to solicitors and further to investigate on how many occasions the Official Solicitor has been used by Local Authorities to progress the removal and adoption of a child from its birth family.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by John Hemming, Official Report, 23 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 258 .] [P000070]

Observation from the Secretary of State for Justice:

The Government takes the issues raised very seriously and would like to highlight the following points in response:

Injustice in the Family Courts

Children involved in care proceedings are considered to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm so the cases involve issues of the most extreme importance. In such cases, the courts—with their independent judiciary—are required by law to treat the interests of the child as paramount.

An adoption panel advises and makes independent recommendations to the adoption agency/local authority on whether the child should be placed for adoption. The panel is made up of a Panel Chair, a Medical Adviser, an elected councillor, a representative of the fostering agency, a foster carer from another agency, independent members, social workers and others who have indirect experience of adoption. The court will then make its decision after hearing and considering all the evidence put before them by all parties in the proceedings, including parents and experts. So the process is:

Official Solicitor

The Official Solicitor is an independent statutory office holder appointed under the Supreme Court Act 1981. He is an officer of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. Ministers are not responsible for his decisions in individual cases.

Use of Experts

Where a lawyer, usually a solicitor for the party that wants expert evidence to be presented, approaches an expert, the expert will be given information about the issues likely to arise and the questions to be answered. The lawyer has to provide information, including the qualifications and expertise of the expert (often by a curriculum vitae) to the court. The lawyer must justify the need for an expert, say whether the expert can be jointly appointed by two or more of the parties to the case and, if so, how costs might be apportioned. There is a presumption that an opinion from a single expert in a speciality will suffice because, in the majority of cases, medical experts will agree about the evidence of harm to a child. However, any of the parties may contest this and apply to the court for the appointment of a separate expert.

There are no plans to legislate to prevent courts from accepting the opinions of independent experts paid for by the Local Authority.