Mr Justice Peter Jackson has determined that letters from a birth mother to her child who was adopted as a toddler are a form of correspondence only, and not a manifestation of family connection or relationship.
The case, decided in the High Court last month, concerns a child who was born in 2008, to a 20-year-old mother. The mother had been in the care of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council since the age of 6. During her 10 years in care, she had 9 separate foster placements.
The council was concerned that the mother was not coping with caring for her new baby, so they were both placed in a residential assessment unit. This was “not a success” though they stayed there for 15 weeks. The local authority subsequently commenced care proceedings, and the child was placed, at 14/15 months old, with foster parents who later became her adoptive parents. The birth mother, Ms Seddon, was permitted two letters a year to the child; this was later reduced to one letter per annum because she continued to oppose the adoption.
This latest hearing concerned Ms Seddon’s right to respect for her private life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Ms Seddon, who is no longer legally represented, sought to argue that the refusal of contact with her child was a breach of her rights. This was rejected. Citing several relevant judgments from UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights, Mr Justice Peter Jackson said:
A has two parents, not three. Family life between Ms Seddon and A came to an end with the adoption and has certainly not been recreated since then. A is now aged six and has not had contact with Ms Seddon for five years. There are no ties of any kind between them. There cannot be any interference with family life that does not exist.
Article 8 rights were judged to be involved in respect of letters from Ms Seddon to the young child. However, this was not because of their pre-existing relationship and biological connection. Having drawn an analogy with prison correspondence, where letters are similarly often the only means of possible communication, the judge observed:
I conclude that a public body running a post-adoption letterbox service is obliged under Art. 8 to respect correspondence between a birth parent and an adopted child and adopters, an obligation arising from the nature of the correspondence and not from the former parent-child relationship.
On Ms Seddon’s claim that the interference with her letter had been unlawful, he said:
No doubt most post-adoption correspondence is constructive and valued, but where it is not, adoptive parents and children should be protected from it. Moreover, the letterbox should not become a means of persuasion or pressure. I therefore reject the proposition that the Council has no right to redact Ms Seddon’s correspondence in a reasonable manner, or that it is obliged to pass on whatever she sends.
The council was found to have acted lawfully in redacting (crossing words out) parts of Ms Seddon’s letter.
In October 2010, Ms Seddon petitioned the European Court of Human Rights; her complaint was deemed inadmissable in July 2012. Her separate claim against Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, for its alleged delay in bringing her into care as a young child and not providing therapy to her, also failed. During those proceedings, Dr Peter Dale provided an independent social work assessment in support of post-adoption contact. One of the arguments he put forward for such contact was:
It is also likely one day that A will read the court papers concerning her history and her adoption. She will learn how vigorously her mother ‘fought’ to have her returned to her care, and how they were prevented from maintaining contact with each other. This could fuel her resentment and anger towards her adoptive family and be a disturbing experience for A, which could threaten her lifelong wellbeing.
Read the full judgment here.