|Adoption and Children Bill
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Don't worry.
Sandra Gidley: I am sure that hon. Members were delighted.
The Bill could be amended to require that placement proceedings were closely linked to care proceedings and that adoption proceedings were specified proceedings under section 41 of the Children Act 1989. In specified proceedings, the courts appoint a CAFCASS officer for the child, unless they are satisfied that that it is not necessary to safeguard the child's interests. Such a provision would ensure that the child's wishes and feelings were reported to the court independently, rather than by the adoption agency, the birth family or the applicants. That would ensure proper investigation and a clear presentation of the child's views and welfare.
Jacqui Smith: Clause 126 enables the Lord Chancellor to make rules on matters of adoption
Column Number: 905procedure. The amendment would require those rules to provide that the child be notified of the date and place of a hearing in relation to an application for a placement order, the variation or revocation of a placement order and an adoption order. It would also require the rules to provide that the child need not attend the hearing, unless he wished to do so or the court required it.
The Government do not think that it would be appropriate for the rules to make provision along those lines. In many cases, the child will be too young to understand the meaning of an application for a placement order or an adoption order, let alone the significance of the court hearing. In addition, we will need to ensure that children are not unnecessarily made party to proceedings, because involvement in them can be stressful for children, and it may be in some children's best interests to have their views represented differently.
I understand the points made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and the concerns about how we ensure that the child's interests and voice are best represented in the system. We shall automatically make children a party to proceedings in placement order cases—as they currently are in care order cases—and we shall appoint a children's guardian. That will give children the right to separate legal representation.
The Bill does not provide for a child to be a party to all adoption proceedings, as we discussed earlier in the Committee. That is because such a provision may not be necessary in cases such as step-parent or relative adoptions. Court rules will, however, provide for the appointment of a CAFCASS officer in any adoption proceedings. The Government currently intend the child to be able to apply to the court for leave to be made a party to adoption proceedings, and the application will be considered in the light of the child's age and understanding.
In addition, the Lord Chancellor's Department and CAFCASS will use the opportunity provided by the creation of CAFCASS to consider the representation of children in all private law proceedings. They will consider whether other types of case might require children to be made a party to the proceedings or to be automatically appointed a children's guardian. They will also examine changes to the criteria used by the courts in considering whether to grant leave for a child to be made a party to proceedings. Any rule changes suggested in that review will be subject to consultation.
As regards the timetable for consultation on the draft rules, we must finalise the Bill and take into account the views of Parliament before we complete those rules. We intend to start consultation on their contents as soon as practicable thereafter, which we hope will be before the end of the year. We also hope that that will allow for a full three-month consultation period.
On a more general note, children of sufficient age and understanding are often invited to meet the judge, for example, to celebrate the making of an adoption order in straightforward cases. That ensures that they see the making of the order as a special occasion, and
Column Number: 906they are often given cards to mark the significance of the day. In that regard, it should be said that judges are often careful not to invite the child to court until it is clear that the adoption order will be made, to avoid disappointing them. For some children—particularly younger ones—becoming involved in court proceedings can be a daunting prospect, and we must ensure that the system retains the flexibility to meet children's particular needs. The arrangements that I described are important because they allow the court to convey the significance of adoption, and I am sure that many of us would be excited to meet a judge.
It is important that the Bill ensures that the child's views are taken into account in all the decisions that courts and adoption agencies make about adoption. As we discussed, clause 1(4)(a) will oblige the courts, when making such decisions, to ascertain and take account of the child's views, bearing in mind his age and understanding. Furthermore, the Government have made it clear that the child's wishes and feelings should be actively sought and fully taken into account at all stages of the adoption process. That key value underpins our national adoption standards.
Court rules made under clauses 97 and 126 will provide for the appointment and duties of a CAFCASS officer. Those may include acting on behalf of a child in partnership with a legal adviser or reporting to the court on the child's wishes and feelings. Clause 1(4)(a) will oblige the courts to consider those views in reaching any decision. I hope that on the basis of those reassurances, the hon. Lady will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Sandra Gidley: I thank the Minister for that clarification. Such a detailed response is helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 126 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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