Adopting the right principle

All wars create tragedy, but if ever a court case emphasised the way such tragedies can cross borders, it was the recent one heard by Sir Stephen Brown, president of the High Court Family Division.

It involved a four-year-old Bosnian girl who, at nine weeks old, was saved after being dragged from beneath a pile of bodies in Bosnia. Among the dead was her mother, who had been machine-gunned.

The girl was then brought over to the UK where she is being raised by an English family, the Fowlers, who adopted her in 1994.

However, her Bosnian relatives have traced her and requested that she be returned. Furthermore, it was discovered that the Fowlers were aware of the existence of the girl's relatives at the time the adoption went ahead.

Sir Stephen Brown said that in the original adoption proceedings at Oxford County Court a "wholly inaccurate and misleading factual account" of the girl's origins and the circumstances in which she was found had been given by the Fowlers, who knew at the time that her grandfather had been found alive.

Despite this, he ruled that although the relatives from Bosnia had been traced and that there had been "appalling irresponsibility" on the part of her foster parents in the adoption procedure, the right place for her was in the UK.

All the lawyers involved found the case harrowing, but Fiona Chiu, of London-based firm Wilford Monro, probably faced the hardest job of all.

The firm, which specialises in child law, was called in by the charity Unaccompanied Children in Exile, which was working with international social services to act on behalf of the girl's Bosnian family. Even by the standards of Wilford Monro, used to problem cases, this one was "extremely difficult" says Chiu.

Information about children rescued from war zones is always sparse, but gaining further information about the girl in this case was all the more difficult because of the adoption order which had been made in respect of her.

"Because the people looking after the girl had adopted her, they were classified as her legal parents and that made it difficult to get information," says Chiu. "We had to get the adoption order set aside, but that in itself was extremely difficult when we had no case papers and had to assume that the adoption had been done properly. We basically had to start right from the beginning and piece the case together."

Another problem was the language barrier. None of the Bosnian family spoke English, and apart from the out of court work and translation during the case, Sir Stephen Brown's 48-page judgment was translated line for line as he read it.

Sir Stephen's judgment has left the future of the girl uncertain and Fiona Chiu says that if there is any underlying message to come out of the case it is that adoptions must be carried out properly.

"The implementation of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption would ensure a proper investigation occurs before a child leaves the country of origin," she says. "This is even more important when the children involved are from war zones.

"There is clear guidance in respect of adopting children from war zones and this case, more than any other, indicates the importance of these guidelines being properly followed."