The High Court has today made a landmark ruling, allowing two civilly partnered sperm donors the right to ask for contact with their biological children (against the wishes of the children’s respective lesbian mothers), but also warning that it will consider the need to protect the lesbian families carefully before a final decision is made. NGA is representing the mothers in the case of Re Z, one of the two connected cases and the one which brought the novel legal issues to the attention of the court.
The ruling has significant implications for same sex parents and families created through donor conception. It is the first case to test rights for same sex parents introduced by Parliament in 2008, which give lesbian mothers the same legal protection following sperm donation as opposite sex parents. Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, the mothers in this case, as civil partners, are the legal parents of their children. The biological fathers, like sperm donors through clinics, are expressly excluded from being treated as the legal fathers ‘for any purpose’. Relationships broke down after the men each sought more involvement than the mothers agreed. They applied to court, and the court has now ruled that they can have their cases heard.
The court’s decision opens the door to legal claims from sperm donors who want involvement but have no legal parental status. But the judgment also makes it clear that every case will be considered carefully. Donors will not simply be treated as fathers, and protecting the primary family’s autonomy is also a ‘material consideration’.
Donors will only be able to seek redress on the basis of the the particular facts, where this is justified. In Re G and Re Z, the fact that the donors had had early contact with the children was what persuaded the court that they should at least be allowed to have their cases heard. However, although the court has given the donors ‘leave’ to apply, it does not necessarily follow that they will actually be given any rights of contact, and the court has warned that the underlying legal framework will be a significant consideration, and that any expectation of very significant contact is likely to be ‘wholly unrealistic’.
Mr Justice Baker suggested that there was no principle being created of automatic rights for donors to lesbian couples: “I endorse the submissions that the policy underpinning these reforms is an acknowledgement that alternative family forms without fathers are sufficient to meet a child’s need… Thousands of children in this country are being brought up happily and successfully by same-sex couples.”
Going forward, there are some significant lessons for same sex parents (and anyone conceiving through known donation):
Lesbian mothers need to understand that being named on the birth certificate does not give absolute protection. Conceiving with a known donor will always carry some level of risk if things don’t work out as intended, so mothers should be very careful about giving any level of contact unless they are absolutely sure.
Gay fathers who act as known donors need to understand that their legal position may be more fragile and uncertain than they think. Men who want to be fully involved fathers will not have any automatic rights if there is a dispute.
Everyone going into known donation or co-parenting arrangements should be crystal clear about their expectations from the outset. Setting the strongest possible foundations at the start is the best way of avoiding later problems. One way to do that is to put an agreement in place, but the real key is good communication – an agreement is a means to that rather than an end in itself. There is more from our blog on How to Avoid a Known Donor Dispute.
At NGA, we provide leading specialist advice to parents conceiving through known donation, including same sex parents, both male and female, and leading representation to those in disputes. We have worked at the cutting edge of the law, pushing boundaries, for many years, and were instrumental in helping create the rights for same sex parents in the HFE Act 2008. There is more information on our website about known donor disputes and about planning known donation for mothers and for fathers. You can also follow us on Twitter for the latest updates on our work and campaigns.
Article: 1st February 2013 www.nataliegambleassociates.co.uk