Six British couples denied the chance to adopt children from Cambodia went to court yesterday to try to force the Government to lift an indefinite adoption ban it imposed 10 months ago.
The two-day hearing at the High Court will focus on the decision of Margaret Hodge, minister for Children, who halted the transfer of children from Cambodia after concerns were raised about the country's adoption procedures.
The legal challenge comes days after parliament's Joint Scrutiny Committee recommended an overhaul of draft legislation for further bans relating to overseas adoptions.
The couples argue that Mrs Hodge had no power to impose a ban on Cambodia. They also claim her decision takes no real account of the humanitarian crisis in Cambodia, a country where Unicefestimates there are more than 670,000 orphans, many as a result of an Aids epidemic, from a population of just 13 million.
Helen Mountfield, for the families, told the High Court she was not arguing for the right for British couples to "adopt a child at any price".
But she said the Government could have introduced appropriate measures short of a ban so that Cambodian children adopted in the UK were not separated from birth parents without consent, or through corruption.
Ms Mountfield said the Government had also acted unlawfully in the cases of couples who had already begun adoption procedures when the ban stopped them.
On 22 June last year, Mrs Hodge announced an immediate "suspension" of adoptions from Cambodia. The couples' lawyers claim there was no consultation before the step was taken.
More than 20 British-based couples were in process of adopting children when Mrs Hodge intervened. Six of them decided to challenge her refusal to issue "certificates of eligibility and suitability" and, in one case, the withdrawal of a certificate that had already been issued.
Certificates confirm that couples who wish to adopt have been assessed by their local authority or adoption agency and police checks have been completed.
The couples claim that the power to issue a certificate exists only to confirm their suitability. Concerns about the circumstances of Cambodian children should be investigated by British visa officers in Cambodia.
The couples point to the approach of France and the US. Both countries investigate all transitional cases in Cambodia to make sure the children are adopted lawfully and ethically.
The actress Angelina Jolie had to wait until the US lifted a ban on adoptions from Cambodia before she could take custody of her child. Jolie, 29, adopted her three-year-old son, Maddox, in 2002 while married to Billy Bob Thornton. "I like to think that with every adoption I save another child from the orphanage," she said.
John Halford, a human rights specialist is representing the British couples. He said: "The US authorities have shown that [things] can be made to go right by checking the background of each child made available for adoption."
Mr Halford said the International Migration Organisation offered to help deal with the cases when the ban was announced but this was not acted upon.Reuse content