Social media pervades every day life for most of us. It is a useful way of keeping up communication with contacts and for finding long lost friends... and now, it seems, also to locate parties to court proceedings. The court in the case of Re: T (A Child)  EWFC 19 recently acknowledged the usefulness of social media when difficulties are encountered in locating and serving parties to proceedings.
The case concerns an application for an adoption order. The child had been living with the applicant/prospective adopter for 10 months after the court made care and placement orders.. The matter was heard by Mr Justice Holman sitting at the Manchester Family Court.
The father opposed the application, claiming he had made considerable changes in his life since the time his care of the child broke down. He had applied for, and was granted, permission to oppose the making of the adoption order.
The birth mother of the child had left the United Kingdom. She had not been served with notice of the adoption proceedings by court staff, and had not been located by the local authority or the children’s guardian prior to the court hearing. The mother was therefore not aware of the adoption application, despite the strict rules regarding service in adoption cases. Mr Justice Holman sets out in detail the statutory requirements and the rules regarding service, referring to ‘…the fundamental importance of service of an application for an adoption order upon a natural parent’. The court can dispense with service in adoption cases, but only ‘after exhaustive attempts have been made to ascertain the whereabouts of a birth parent...That, however, has to be a judicial decision, which must be based on proper evidence as to the attempts that have been made at service’ .
When the matter came before the court, the father’s barrister informed the court that the father’s current partner had in fact spoken with the birth mother the day before, after having located her on Facebook. The local authority and the children’s guardian countered that the birth mother was not easily traceable on social media following attempted searches undertaken that day. The father’s partner stated that the birth mother had changed her name on Facebook since she was initially located.
The judge was critical of the local authority for having not made greater efforts to locate the mother, and stated that social media was a “useful tool in the armoury” when a parent cannot readily be traced. It was the Judge’s view that there must also be a concurrent duty on the children’s guardian ‘to seek to ensure that there is proper service’.
This criticism is in stark contrast to the judge’s remarks about the father’s counsel – ‘I am especially indebted to Mr Zimran Samuel’ - who helped not only by agreeing to represent the father for a very low fee, but also by actively helping to trace the mother, speaking with her, and confirming her postal and e-mail addresses.
The judge was mindful of the delay and the potentially damaging effect it could have on the child. However, as he pointed out it is ‘absolutely mandatory that she [the mother] be served and given a proper opportunity to participate in the proceedings’. His only option was to adjourn the hearing so as to allow for sufficient time for the mother to be served.
This is a clear reminder that, given the draconian nature of an adoption order, the rules on service are clear and have to be strictly applied. In some cases, that will mean thinking more imaginatively about how to trace and communicate with parents, especially given the possibilities created by social media.
The link to the Judgment can be found here: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2017/19.html
At TV Edwards LLP, we regularly act for family members in care and adoption proceedings. We have specialist solicitors whose expertise in this area has been recognised through accreditation and panel membership. We understand that the placement of children outside their birth family cause great stress and is very upsetting; and that those affected need quick and effective advice and action. If you need legal advice relating to such proceedings then please contact our specialist public law children team on 0203 440 8000 or by email: A_FamilyReferrals@tvedwards.com