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Facebook: Saviour of Family Justice

This week, social media has been back in the news. We hear a lot about social media as family lawyers, usually in a negative way: its impact on marriages is not always, we find, beneficial. However, there’s just been a case in which a judge has acknowledged the power of social media to enable people to be reached, so that they can be part of important court decisions.

The report concerns adoption proceedings about a little boy of four years old. His birth parents are both foreign nationals, who were living together with their son in the Manchester area before something happened (we do not know what) requiring the child to be removed and taken into the care of social services. He was placed, at 3, with a foster carer who subsequently made an application to adopt him.

The birth father was opposing the application, saying that he had turned his life around with his new partner to the degree that they could now care for his son. He was properly served with the adoption application, and objected to it. However, nobody seemed to be able to find the birth mother. It seemed that after serving a term of imprisonment, she had returned to her country of origin – and that was all that was known about her whereabouts.

Mr Justice Holman starts his judgment in this case by saying: “When I began in practice at the Family Law Bar about 45 years ago, there were frequent difficulties with regard to service upon birth parents of proceedings for adoption. It is, frankly, very depressing that despite all the statutory and rule changes between then and now, and all the accumulated experience of those who practise in this field, the difficulties which I am about to describe can still arise.”

It transpired that the social workers and guardian dealing with the adoption of the little boy had contacted the embassy of the country to which the mother had returned to ask if she could be traced. But when the embassy said it had no information about her, they stopped trying.

There’s clear policy, law and precedent that it is of the utmost importance when considering an order as draconian as adoption, that every reasonable effort is made so that the birth parents are given sufficient notice of and information about the proceedings to enable them to play a full part wherever possible, if they wish to do so (they don’t have to). Adoption severs a child’s connection with his birth parents and institutes a new legal family framework into the child’s life in its place. It is, as the rules state, ‘fundamental’ that any birth parents should have notice of the time, date and place where such an order might be made.

Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the social workers and the court, the birth parents cannot be found. However, in this case, any ‘best efforts’ were quite clearly lacking. This was illustrated by the fact, as revealed at the hearing, that two days before the hearing of the adoption application, the father’s new partner (who is of the same nationality as the birth parents) had managed to have a telephone conversation with the birth mother. She’d found her by searching on Facebook, and in a few clicks had managed to get an address and send a message asking for her phone number.

The conversation between the partner and the birth mother showed that the mother had no idea that her child was now subject to adoption proceedings. In fact, she had thought that he had already been adopted, after apparently misconstruing what a judge had said at a previous hearing.

The judge said,

“I do wish to highlight by this short judgment that, in the modern era, Facebook may well be a route to somebody such as a birth parent whose whereabouts are unknown and who requires to be served with notice of adoption proceedings. I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook should be the first method used, but it does seem to be a useful tool in the armoury which can certainly be resorted to long before a conclusion is reached that it is impossible to locate the whereabouts of a birth parent. Of course, not everyone is on Facebook but, in this particular case, a relatively socially disadvantaged young mother in [X] has been found very rapidly by that means.

“It is concerning that the local authority did not pursue other avenues to try to locate the birth mother apart only from enquiries of the [X] embassy.”

The court took the decision that the mother must be given the opportunity to participate in the process, and therefore reluctantly it adjourned the hearing of the adoption application. It acknowledged, regretfully, that this would cause grief for the prospective adoptive parent and that the inevitable delay would potentially prejudice the welfare of the little boy. The decision, however, is clearly correct: the integrity of the family law process depends on procedural rules being followed. Despite what is inevitably a horrible situation for the adoptive parent, the court has to give the birth parent the opportunity to be there and make representations, if she wishes, before her ties to her son are severed for ever.

Perhaps the social workers will have a look on the internet next time they need to trace someone. Isn’t that what all of us do, when we wonder where someone might be now? And that neatly brings us back round to how we usually hear about Facebook in the context of our work… you can see why we feel that it’s good to hear that it has a place in the positive administration of family justice. If you’ve got any queries about what you’ve read here, or any other family law matter, you can give us a call on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Adam, Sue, Gail, Tricia or Simon.