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Woman wins permission to look at late father's adoption files

Royal Courts of Justice
The Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

A woman has been granted permission to look at court files relating to her father's adoption to discover the identity of her grandmother, in a ground-breaking judgment that sets a precedent for revealing secret family histories.

The ruling by Sir James Munby (pdf), president of the family division of the high court, will allow the woman to explore her ancestry – an inquiry previously blocked by an adoption order dating back to 1930.

Parliament is consulting on whether to extend the existing right of adopted children, when they reach the age of 18, to learn more about their birth family so that grandchildren can also benefit from such research.

Munby's judgment, which insists that he is not usurping parliament's role in deciding the issue, is based on the fact that the grandmother, adoptive parents and father in the case before him are all known or assumed to be dead.

The woman who made the application, named only as Y, knows that her father was born in November 1929 and adopted the following January under an order made by magistrates in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.

No legal authority existed to determine whether she should be allowed to see the court file, Munby explained. The woman originally submitted a request by letter to the court stating: "My grandmother … is certainly dead by now, so I will not harm anyone by knowing her name. I will not be trying to contact her relatives or causing any trouble. I just want to know who my dad was, who his mother was, where he was born, and who I am, my sister, my brother, my children and grandchildren."

The adoption file, which has been closed, contains the name and address of the grandmother, a signed consent form, a letter she wrote to the adoptive parents and the father's birth certificate. It is possible that the child was born outside marriage and adopted to avoid what might at the time have been considered a social disgrace.

Munby acknowledged that " the public policy of maintaining public confidence in the confidentiality of adoption files is an important consideration". However, he added, so too was "the duration of time that has elapsed since the order was made, and the question of whether any or all of the affected parties are deceased".

The judge accepted that relatives of the grandmother might be affected by disclosure of her identity but decided to allow Y to read the court documents.

He said: "I do not think it appropriate, let alone necessary, to impose any conditions or restrictions on Y's use of the documents. I am content to leave that to her good sense and discretion."

He concluded: "Y's reasons for wanting access to this information are entirely genuine and understandable. The fact that any upset that might be caused to any of [her father's] birth mother's surviving relatives is no more than speculative."

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