The C-section case: final chapter

Posted on 15th Apr 2014 in Case Comment

In an earlier post, The Curious Case of The Court, The Commentators, The Woman, and Her Baby, we considered the story, widely and hysterically covered in the media, and more rationally by legal bloggers, of a pregnant Italian woman who had visited the UK in the summer 2012 only to be “sectioned” under the Mental Health Act and then C-sectioned, pursuant to a court order (ie involuntarily required to submit to a Caesarean birth), apparently to protect her baby, which was then taken into care.

The story provoked a media frenzy about “secret courts” and it was partly because the court proceedings had been in secret, or in private, to protect the interests of justice and the parties, that the media reporting was able to get so many of the facts wrong. The fact that some commentators heard only half the story and mis-reported the other, or at any rate gave no-one any benefit of the doubt, didn’t help either.

But it seems to have been partly in response to this case that the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, soon afterwards issued his edict, or “practice guidance”, requiring courts in the Family Division and the Court of Protection to give judgment in open court by default, and only suppress names or documents, or entire judgments, if the circumstances genuinely warranted it: see Practice Guidance (Family Courts: Transparency) [2014] 1 WLR 230, Fam D, 16 January 2014.

The story so far

What follows is not a recap. You can read the original blog post The Curious Case of The Court, The Commentators, The Woman, and Her Baby: this is just an update on the case itself, now that a final adoption hearing has been held before Sir James himself (the matter was transferred to him), and he has given judgment in open court: In the matter of P (A Child) [2014] EWHC 1146 (Fam).

In brief, what happened was this. The Italian woman, Alessandra Pacchieri, came to the UK in the summer of 2012 for a training course. She was pregnant. She was suffering from a bipolar disorder and had already had two previous children taken into care in Italy, and following some sort of episode involving her medication or failure to take it, was detained for treatment under the Mental Health Act 1983. As her due date approached, those caring for her, fearing for the risks involved in a natural vaginal birth, applied to the Court of Protection for an order compelling her to give birth by Caesarean section. (The application was not made by social workers, nor was the order made, to protect her child. It was purely to avoid potential complications and risks to her own health). After the baby was born, it was indeed taken into care and was later the subject of adoption proceedings, in which the mother, having initially returned (or been returned) to Italy, came back to participate in, apparently in a very lucid and convincing, but ultimately unsuccessful, way.

The case came back to court in relation to reporting restriction proceedings, and it was at this point, after the whole thing had by now broken in the press (more than a year after the original events) that the President became involved. His judgment was partly an exercise in seeing what lessons could be learned – by the courts, the media, social services and the other professionals. The media were found wanting in some respects, but allowance was made for the fact that judgments had not been published or disclosed to the press, making it hard for them (though not impossible) to get the facts right. If the media could do better, so could the courts: in future judgments should be available unless the circumstances demanded otherwise.

The final chapter

All that remained was to resolve the adoption proceedings. As Sir James Munby P says in today’s judgment, “This is the final chapter in the litigation relating to Alessandra Pacchieri and her daughter P.”

In February 2013 Judge Newton in Chelmsford County Court when making the initial care order had also made a placement order in respect of the child, P. The mother’s last contact with P had been in May 2013, although she had been in touch with social workers and the courts since then and had asked after her child. In October 2013 Judge Newton made an order giving Essex County Council leave to place P for adoption and in November 2013 she was placed with prospective adopters, with whom she had remained ever since.

Although solicitors ostensibly instructed by the mother had mentioned a desire to seek to appeal the adoption decision, no such appeal was pursued; nor did she appear or send any representation to the present hearing of an application by the prospective adopters (Mr and Mrs X) now before the President, despite having been notified by the local authority and the court and warned of the consequence of not attending (namely that an order might be made in her absence). In today’s judgment, his Lordship sets out the correspondence in detail, so no one can be in any doubt that the mother was fully aware of the proceedings, and, while wishing the best for her daughter, did not entertain any serious hopes of attending or opposing the adoption proceedings.

The position at the date of the present hearing on 1 April 2014 was as follows:

“no application of any kind had been made on behalf of the mother or the Italian authorities, whether to the Court of Protection, the Chelmsford County Court or the Family Division, nor had any application been made to the Court of Appeal. In particular, it is to be noted, neither the mother, nor for that matter the father, had made any application in accordance with section 47(50 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 for leave to oppose the making of an adoption order. In these circumstances the submissions made on behalf of Mr and Mrs X by their solicitor was simple and compelling. The Annex A report was understood to be wholly positive about P’s placement with Mr and Mrs X – as indeed it is – and it being clear that the mother was fully aware of the hearing and had not indicated any intention to seek leave to oppose the making of the order, I should make an adoption order. I had no hesitation in doing so. Accordingly on 1 April 2014 I made the adoption order.”

The case is rounded off with a conclusion, at para 17, that clearly reflects the hope that the story, however badly it began, might now have a happy – and final – ending:

“Mr and Mrs X are good and loving people. They are admirably equipped to meet P’s needs now and into the future. P is obviously thriving in their care and doing very well. In all the circumstances, and having regard to the ‘welfare checklist’ in section 1(4) of the 2002 Act, P’s welfare throughout her life requires – demands – that she be adopted. Nothing else will do.”

Fallout

As the family law blogger suesspiciousminds commented (the only comment I’ve seen so far on this final chapter):

“Obviously this is a sad case, as all adoptions are. Perhaps the mother had given up hope, perhaps she thought that she would have no chance of success, perhaps she just wasn’t in a place where a fight was something she could manage. I feel for her. Less for some of the journalists who high-jacked her tragedy to make cheap and inaccurate points.” He adds: “I suspect that this judgment won’t get the publicity that the shrill allegations got back in December.”

For the parties, that’s probably no bad thing. And it will have demonstrated the benefits – for them as much as for anyone – of transparency in the family justice system.