Adoption highlights parental rights

Roger Pearson reports on how a father's battle for custody of his son swayed the long-standing opinion of a family lawyer.

Few lawyers have made as swift a U-turn in respect of long-held opinion than that of family solicitor Pat Monro.

The senior partner of specialist London-based firm Wilford Monro admits that for some 20 years she has believed that unmarried fathers should not automatically obtain parental responsibility.

But the recent failed battle of an unmarried father for custody of a son, (of whom he had been previously unaware), and an order blocking moves to have the boy adopted, have changed her views.

"Not many cases really get under my skin, but this one has," says Monro, who represented the father, a 27-year-old cabin crewman. "I consider it to be a gross case of injustice and it certainly changed my view on the rights that unmarried fathers should have."

The case began behind the closed doors of Oxford County Court, but emerged publicly when it reached the Court of Appeal on 21 August.

Lords Justices Swinton Thomas, Mantell and Buxton refused the father's appeal against his earlier failure to persuade Oxford County Court to let him have the child and block the adoption. All they gave him was the right to see the child at least twice a year.

What set this case apart from others was the fact that for the bulk of the child's life, the father had not even known he had a son. The child was the result of a three-year relationship which ended in 1996. The father, who is soon to marry, did not know that the woman he was parting from was pregnant by him.

The boy was brought up by a couple in Oxfordshire, but in October last year during adoption proceedings Reading Borough Council Social Services was ordered to break the news to the father that he had a son.

The first the father knew of the child was via a letter from lawyers for the child's mother telling him he had a son and saying that he would be contacted by the local authority regarding the adoption.

It was at that point that the father, who Lord Justice Swinton Thomas said was impeccable and who, for reasons beyond his control, had had no contact with his son, began the court battle for his son.

That battle, which Pat Monro says raises significant legal points, made all the more significant in the light of the current consultation papers specifically relating to the parental responsibility of unmarried fathers, may well end up in the House of Lords.

Above all, Pat Monro believes that there should be an automatic requirement when an adoption process is started, that the father of the child should, as a matter of course, be informed of what is happening. At the moment it is arguable that authorities are under no statutory obligation to do this.

Monro says : "This case has created a terrible situation, both for the father and for the people adopting this child. It could have been avoided if there was a statutory obligation that unmarried fathers must be informed of what is happening."