Adopters wins legal costs battle


Published: Tuesday 24th February 2015 by The News Editor

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The “devoted” adopters of a seriously-disabled child have won £14,000 in a legal costs battle with a local council.

A judge said Essex County Council was slow to recognise the extent of the young boy’s difficulties and had been “unreasonable throughout”.

A dispute broke out between the council and the couple, who cannot be named for legal reasons, over who should fund the preparation of a care package to meet the complex needs of “child K”, now aged five.

Since being placed with his adoptive parents in 2011, K has been diagnosed with learning difficulties and severe mental health issues.

After winning the battle over costs, lawyers for the couple said the Government wanted to see “hard to place children” finding homes in loving families, but warned: “If other local authorities act like Essex it will be impossible for this key policy to succeed.”

Judge Lynn Roberts, sitting at Chelmsford Family Court, ruled Essex must pay a large proportion of the costs bill and described K as “a very challenging child to parent”.

At the time he was placed with the couple “the extent of his difficulties had not been understood”, said the judge.

The couple, referred to as NP and SP, “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”.

The judge said: “Despite the challenges, the proposed adopters have provided the care which this little boy needs. He is very much part of their family and they are devoted to him and to giving him the best possible start in life.”

The couple had shown “great devotion and skill” but raised issues about the level of support they needed, especially in view of the adoptive mother’s health deteriorating, for several months.

Judge Roberts said she had made the final adoption order on the day she considered the issue of costs.

Local authority officials made it clear Essex would not fund NP and SP’s costs in relation to the assessment of K’s complex needs and expected them “to sort out the issues with the social workers”.

Judge Roberts said the adopters argued that, without expert legal advice and representation, they would not have achieved the support plan they now had and which was vital for K.

The county council argued it should not have to pay the couple’s costs bill and contended it had been “generous” to the family in terms of funding throughout.

The judge said it was unusual to use legal powers to order a local authority to pay adopters’ costs, but it was “an unusual situation”, and the county council had been “unreasonable throughout”.

If the proposed adopters had not secured expert legal advice “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 K and his parents would continue to struggle.”

The judge said there had been “great delay”, and it appeared the local authority was slow to recognise the extent of K’s difficulties and the demands his care was making on NP and SP.

The couple were entitled to £14,000 to reflect the fact that NP and SP had been very successful in securing the right support plan necessary to make an adoption order possible – and the fact that the county council “were unreasonable and delayed and did not comply with orders of the court”.

The council had also failed to address the particular needs of K until it received a report from children’s charity Barnardos.

Commenting on the ruling, Nigel Priestley, senior partner at specialist solicitors Ridley and Hall Huddersfield, said: “Many people must wonder – `Why did it take so long?` Less committed couples would have thrown in the towel years ago.”

Mr Priestly added: “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.

“T he 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”:

NP said the council’s approach was “a disgrace” and the local authority “fought us all the way”, adding: “Essex didn’t understand how the pressure from K’s behaviour was building and (my wife) became seriously ill. We realised we needed legal representation. An inadequate support plan was prepared.

“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 are delighted by the judge’s decision to make Essex pay towards our costs.”

Published: Tuesday 24th February 2015 by The News Editor

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