Limits on state intrusion into family life

Posted: 13th May 2013

familyIn directing that a four-month-old boy be removed from foster care and placed with his mother in prison, the Court of Appeal has emphasised that state intrusion into family life must be kept to a minimum and that an interim care hearing is not the appropriate forum in which to decide a child’s long-term future.

Mother and baby had spent only a few days together before she was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for burglary. Although room was available for her and the child in a prison mother and baby unit, the relevant local authority decided that such a placement would be contrary to the child’s best interests and he was instead put into foster care.

The local authority argued that, given the mother’s chaotic history of crime, drug abuse and involvement with violent men, there was little prospect of her being able to care adequately for the boy after her release from custody. Placing the child with her in prison would be productive of substantial delay, would break his developing bond with foster carers and would risk causing him significant harm. Those arguments prevailed before a family judge who made an interim care order and placed the boy with fosterers.

Allowing the mother’s challenge to that decision, the Court of Appeal accepted the mother’s plea that the family judge had wrongly focused on the boy’s longer term future and had pre-judged the outcome of the care proceedings on the basis that the prospects of the mother being able to care for her child were gloomy.

Noting that the care proceedings were at an early stage, the court found that the issues in the case were finely balanced and emphasised that family judges must be careful not to reach decisions at an interim stage that effectively pre-determine the outcome of the substantive care proceedings.

The court observed that the ‘reasonable grounds’ threshold which holds sway in interim proceedings is less rigorous than the burden of proof applied in final care hearings and affords less protection to parents and children against the state’s intrusion into their family lives.