Family law: Broken families and broken lives

Family Law|February 18th 2016

Sometimes, dare I say it, family law can be a somewhat depressing business. Anyone who, like me, follows the latest reported family judgments surely cannot help but feel a little dispirited by the tales they tell of broken families and broken lives. Obviously, one should expect sad stories of disintegrated families and their struggles to sort out the consequences of that disintegration. However, sometimes the issues faced by our family courts are at another level of poignancy entirely.

I was reminded of this by three cases that I came across in the last week or so.

Take, for example, the case of the man who suffers from Huntington’s disease who appears to want to die. Mr Justice Hayden in the Court of Protection was effectively faced with the decision of whether or not to allow him to die by not having a feeding tube re-inserted. He decided that the man should be allowed to die. A truly awful decision for a judge to have to make, but one that at least respects the dignity and the apparent wishes of the man, and resolves the appalling situation faced by his family.

The tragic case A Local Health Board v Y (A Child) & Others was along not entirely dissimilar lines. It concerned a baby born prematurely on 25th July 2015. Following his birth, he suffered two episodes of infection, one of which developed into meningitis, and possibly ventriculitis, resulting in extensive brain damage and microcephaly. He did go home briefly, but he was re-admitted to hospital in January suffering from a lower respiratory tract infection. His condition deteriorated and he suffered several episodes of cardiac arrest or malfunction which required CPR. The doctors became concerned that these episodes were likely to recur and that there was no treatment to reverse the effects of the brain damage. They concluded that it was in his best interests not to subject him to repeated episodes of CPR but his parents disagreed, urging them to continue with the treatment. As a result of this disagreement, the Health Board applied to the court for a declaration in respect of the child’s medical treatment. The case went before Mr Justice Baker in the High Court. He concluded that the course proposed by the clinicians, incorporating the withholding and withdrawal of treatment, was in the child’s best interests, and made a declaration accordingly. Once again, an awful decision for a judge to make but, as mentioned in the report, one that respects the child’s right for a dignified life, for as long as he survives, and for a dignified death when it comes. It is also notable that the parents took the “extraordinarily difficult” decision to agree the treatment plan proposed by the clinicians.

The third case was N and P (Children) (Care and Placement Orders), again heard by Mr Justice Baker. This concerned two children whose parents came to this country from Slovakia. The background of the family, as Mr Justice Baker commented, was sad and disturbing. The mother is Hungarian and of Roma origin. She was raised on the street in Slovakia as part of a homeless family. She is illiterate and has no knowledge of the English language. An assessment carried in the course of the proceedings established that she has learning difficulties with an IQ of 50. The father is Slovakian but also speaks Hungarian. He is literate with some understanding of English, although a psychological assessment in the course of the proceedings established that he too has a low IQ of around 63. It was alleged that the parents were the victims of people trafficking – the mother’s account was that on arrival at Dover they escaped from the traffickers and travelled across England, staying at various locations, but ending up in Bournemouth. Social services became involved with the family after concerns about the children and eventually care proceedings were instituted. The children were placed in foster care and the parents returned to Slovakia. Mr Justice Baker essentially had to decide whether the children should be sent to Slovakia, where most members of their family live, or whether they should be placed for adoption with their current foster carers. He decided that their welfare would be best served by the latter course of action: the children’s needs were being well met by their carers, with whom they had formed a close attachment and were thriving. A decision that will obviously have a profound effect upon the children, but one that hopefully will provide them with a future that is a lot brighter than their past.

As I said at the beginning of this post, family law can be a depressing business. I recall while I was practising often being asked by non-family lawyers how I could put up with the work – didn’t it get me down? Well, yes, at times it did, but the reward is that sometimes family law can play a small part in repairing broken families and broken lives, and helping those affected to move on, however difficult that may be.

Photo by Federico Carranza via Flickr

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  1. Winston Smith says:

    I thought it had been agreed children of Eastern European nations would be sent home to be dealt with by their own social services.

    You fail to mention how the governments of these countries refuse to accept the Forced Adoption of their children and protests outside our embassies.

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