Step-parenting and adoption orders can be an incredibly sensitive area not only of life, but of law. The Children Act 1989 defines parental responsibility as:

“all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.”

If you hold parental responsibility you are legally entitled to play a part in any major decision in the child’s life, such as where they go to school, their religion, or whether they should receive medical treatment.

A child’s legal status is altered by an adoption order and you effectively become a legal permanent family unit. All other legal ties with the child’s second birth parent are legally severed.

The adoption order means the step-parent takes on the second birth parent’s legal responsibility. They will share the full parental responsibility with their partner (the child’s birth parent).

Such an order will only every be made if it is deemed to be in the child’s best interests.

What are the alternatives to an adoption order?

An adoption order is the most permanent and irrevocable way for a step-parent to gain parental responsibility for the child and make them part of their family. But it is not the only way.

If a step-parent wants to gain parental responsibility, there are alternatives to seeking an adoption order.

These include a court order, whereby a court can grant parental responsibility. Alternatively, the child’s birth parents and step-parent could reach an agreement whereby they share parental responsibility.

The latter would mean the step-parent could legally exercise parental responsibility and be involved in decision-making for the child and their upbringing.

Step-parents can also apply for a child arrangements order. This would specify the amount of time the child should spend in their care. While the order remained in force, the step-parent would be entitled to exercise parental responsibility for the child.

What conditions must a step-parent meet before applying for an adoption order?

The child must have been living with the step-parent for at least six months before the application can be made.

The step-parent must give at least three months’ written notice to the local authority where the child lives that they are going to make the application.

In order to apply for an adoption order a step-parent must:

  • be over 21;
  • live in the UK or have been habitually resident here for a year; and
  • be the partner of the parent whose child they wish to adopt.

How does the adoption order process work?

There is a specific form that must be filled in and there is a fee to be paid. Once you have filled in the form you become the applicant. When the form has been processed the application will be sent to every other parent with current parental responsibility for the child (this includes your partner).

Each of these parents will then be given the opportunity to respond to the application. They then become the respondents.

If one of the child’s birth parents does not hold parental responsibility, they will not be sent the form, nor have the opportunity to respond. They may not be aware of the application, but it is advisable to let them know, in order that they be given the chance to express their views.

It is possible that the court can then say they are also a respondent. If that is the case then they will also be given the opportunity to prepare a response to the application.

Regardless of whether they are a respondent or not, if the child’s second birth parent does not agree to the adoption order and you are asking the court to make it anyway (which is known as ‘dispensing with consent’), then you must make a statement. In this statement you must summarise the case, the facts and the reasons why you believe the court should make the order, despite the fact that one birth parent has objections.

Upon receipt of the application, a date and time will be made by the court for a first directions hearing. This is where the court will decide how the case should proceed. It will ask for the local authority to prepare a report as to your suitability as an adopter. You will be interviewed by the local authority, which will help it prepare its report. This will contain detailed information that will help the court decide whether to make the order.

The court will also consider the checklist in the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

What happens at court?

Both you and the child in question will be asked to attend a final hearing. Sometimes the court decides that not all parties have to be in attendance, but this is not customary.

The reason the child must attend is that the court must be sure they understand (within reason, depending on their age) the serious effect of the order you are asking the court to make.

All evidence will then be considered by the judge – from you, the reports and the child’s other parents – and will then make a decision.

How does the court decide what should happen?

The child’s welfare throughout their whole life is the court’s primary concern.

The judge will consider the following factors when making their decision:

  • the child’s wishes and feelings;
  • the child’s particular needs;
  • the likely effect on the child (throughout their life) of having ceased to be a member of the original family and becoming an adopted person;
  • the child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics that the court considers relevant;
  • any harm that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering; and
  • the relationship that the child has with relatives and with any other person the court considers relevant. This includes (but is not limited to) the following:
  1. the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of it doing so;
  2. the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which they can develop and otherwise to meet the child’s needs; and
  3. the wishes and feelings of any relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

Beyond this, the court places great consideration on the fact that the tie between the second birth parent and the child will effectively be broken, which will inevitably have a huge impact on the child’s life.
When considering this, the court looks at:

  1. the nature and quality of the relationship that the child has had with their birth parent;
  2. the relationship and family ties that exist within the step-parental family unit.

If there has very little contact or involvement from the second birth parent for a long time, if that person has not played any significant role in the child’s life, or has not assumed any parental responsibility, it is more likely the judge will consider the adoption order.

But if the child’s birth parent is involved in the child’s life and objects to the adoption order, the judge will take extra care over the motivation for the order and the reasons it is being made.

The court must be sure the order is not being used to gain control over a child’s upbringing or to exclude the birth parent from the child’s life.

Disagreements over practical arrangements or how a child should be brought up should usually be dealt with by making an application for a child arrangements order, rather than an adoption order.

If you would like to discuss any of the above, please get in touch with Britton and Time Solicitors for a free, no-obligation conversation.