Sheriff Murray recently issued a note following an undefended application by Aberdeen City Council for a permanence order (without authority to adopt) in respect of an 11 year old child. He took the decision to fix an undefended proof on the application, in light of the insufficient evidence available at two continued preliminary hearings to allow him to grant the order. The note can be viewed here.
The procedure in permanence cases is set out in the Sheriff Court Adoption Rules 2009. In cases were the application has been successfully intimated and the Curator's report is available, the permanence order can, in the absence of any form of opposition having been lodged or an appearance by either parent (or anyone claiming an interest), be granted at the first calling of the case. The Sheriff will of course require to be satisfied by the evidence before him to grant the order. That evidence is presented in the social work report lodged with the Petition. Such reports are a requirement of the court rules and contain (or should contain) all the relevant information in support of the Petition.
In this case, the Petitioners were seeking to vest certain parental responsibilities and parental rights (ancillary provisions) in the child's foster carer, as permitted by section 82 of the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007. The Reporting Officer's report recommended that the Sheriff grant the order sought by the Petitioners. The social work report, however, made potentially concerning references to the foster carer's background which had not been adequately explained. The Petitioner's agent was unable to provide the Sheriff with sufficient additional information at the preliminary hearings to allow the Sheriff to grant the order with the ancillary provisions being vested in the foster carer. He accordingly fixed an undefended proof and on the basis of the affidavits and other documents lodged by the Petitioners, then granted the permanence order as sought by the Petitioners.
The 2009 Rules set out the matters that are to be covered in the social work report but these are little more than headings for each section of the report itself. In practice, the content and quality of such reports varies massively from case to case. As Sheriff Murray points out in his note, the social worker preparing the report will require to review voluminous files and case notes prior to writing their report, which is a time-consuming task. In cases involving older children, there may well have been several social workers allocated to the child's case over the years. The current social worker then has the difficult job of compiling a chronology of the child's case and taking a view as to what information is and is not relevant for inclusion in the report.
The report is the key part of the application. The Sheriff is likely to have no prior no knowledge of the child or their circumstances. In an undefended application, it is the social work report (together with that of the Curator and Reporting Officer) that the Sheriff has to rely on at the preliminary hearing to grant the order. In a defended application, the solicitor representing the child's parent will draft Answers, not to the Petition but to the social work report. The time spent preparing these reports cannot be underestimated. The professionals involved in child protection cases have demanding case loads and limited time. Further training and guidance for social workers on the preparation of permanence reports would undoubtedly have an impact in terms of reducing delay and securing outcomes for looked after children.