Mathew Waddington, solicitor in the family and children law department of Worcestershire-based law firm Harrison Clark, takes a look at adoption procedures

The papers have been full of Madonna returning from Malawi having adopted a child. It has been claimed that the usual rules were waived for her – she denies it.

But, if you are thinking about adopting a child and are not an international pop star or Hollywood actor/actress, you will definitely have to play it by the book if you want to succeed.

But do you really need to adopt in the first place?

Harry Enfield once made fun of celebrity adoptions when his character Wayne Slob brought back a baby to his partner Waynetta from a passionate relationship he was supposed to have had with Naomi Campbell. Although at first glance Harry Enfield and Chums seems far removed from the average household there may be some similarities with your home.

Wayne had a child by another person and then got together with Waynetta. Increasingly people find themselves in a situation where one of them is a step parent or partner living with the other partner's child. Do they really need to adopt?

Adoption in England and Wales is the procedure by which a person who is not the biological parent of a child becomes the legal parent. The advantage of this order is that the step parent will share all those rights, duties and obligations that the biological parent had in the first place. There are however drawbacks.

The other biological parent would then cease to be a legal parent when the adoption order is made.

The application process also takes a long time and involves the local authority social services department having to be involved and making reports to the court which many people may find off-putting. The cost of adoption hearings is relatively high especially where the other biological parent objects to the order being made and if that biological parent is still having contact with the child, the court will rarely grant an adoption order, although it is possible.

There are other alternatives to adoption. Joint residence orders are fairly commonplace and simply state that the child lives with the biological parent and her partner.

The advantage of this type of order is that it is less intrusive and rarely involves the social services.

It usually takes less time than an adoption order and will usually cost less money. The court still does need to be involved though and costs are still high. The court may still need a report and, if so, there will be investigation by the court reporting officer from an organisation called CAFCASS. It can also take quite a long time to finalise. One other factor which must be borne in mind is what happens if the parent and their partner subsequently split up.

Another alternative is a parental responsibility order. These are exactly the same as joint residence orders with the same court procedure but they only give parental responsibility to the other partner.

Such agreements are the quickest and cheapest way of getting a new partner parental responsibility. Again the new partner would have to be married to the biological parent to apply or in the case of same sex relationships to have entered into a civil partnership. But if the other biological parent agrees then all that needs to happen is that a form is filled in with some identification documents being needed and no application to court is necessary.

There is also another type of order called a special guardianship order which is meant to be a halfway house between residence and adoption but this is rarely used and usually follows on from care cases where the court has found that a child has suffered significant harm and the social services will have normally removed the child from both parents.

Straight forward adoption may not be appropriate for everybody and all options need to be explored before deciding if this is the route that you want to take.