For this post I will mostly be jettisoning the ‘law’ from ‘family law’, and concentrating just on the ‘family’ part.
We all have our own ideas about what constitutes a ‘family’, and obviously those ideas are influenced by our own experiences. If we grew up in a ‘traditional’ family (mother, father, happy children who leave home when they finish education), then that is our perception of what a ‘family’ is, or even of what it should be. And yet, as anyone who has experienced ‘family law’ will tell you, that is only part of the story.
As I discussed here a couple of months ago, the family can take many more forms than that ‘traditional’ stereotype. And I am not just referring to single-parent families. As we will see in a moment, families can stray far further from the traditional stereotype. I suspect that most of us may not consider some family types to be a ‘family’ at all.
I was moved to write this post by an article about a very sad story that I read over the weekend on the Guardian website. You may have heard about the story, even if you haven’t read the article. It concerns two 59 year-old twins, Bernard and Muriel Burgess.
On New Year’s Day this year Bernard and Muriel’s bodies were found entwined at the foot of the cliffs at Dover. They had clearly fallen from the cliffs, and may even have been holding hands when they fell. But that is not all. When their bodies were searched it was found that their rucksacks contained the ashes of their parents, who had died some years previously. The obvious conclusion is that Bernard and Muriel had decided to end their lives together, although it is also possible that their fall was an accident, perhaps with one falling and the other reaching out to try to save them. They were known to be prolific walkers. Perhaps they always took their parents’ ashes with them, wherever they went.
We may never know how Bernard and Muriel came to lose their lives that day. However, we do know quite a lot about their lives, and it is an instructive, albeit ultimately very sad, story.
Bernard and Muriel grew up on the Wirral. By all accounts their childhood was quite ‘normal’, conforming to the ‘traditional family’ stereotype. They both had a number of friends, and were both said to be good-looking, attractive to members of the opposite sex. Bernard, for example, was quite outgoing, and would enjoy a drink and a laugh with his friends.
And then, in the words of one of those friends, he just disappeared off the radar. He developed a form of arthritis that left him unable to work. His father died and he and Muriel became carers for their mother, upon whom they doted. They continued to care for her, never leaving home, until she died in 2014.
According to their aunt, Bernard and Muriel took their mother’s death very badly. They sold the family home and moved into a static caravan in a retirement community outside Chester. Their neighbours in the caravan park said that they did not mix, never responding when spoken to and only going out to do their shopping at night. They went everywhere on foot, preferring the two-and-a-half-hour walk to Chester over the bus. They kept their curtains and blinds shut at all times.
Money was no doubt a problem for Bernard and Muriel. They relied on benefits, and Bernard’s disability benefits were being reassessed at the time that they died, which was no doubt a great source of worry for them. When they last saw their aunt, in July last year, it was to ask her for a loan to repair a leak in the caravan.
Last summer the twins disappeared for three months, leaving their ground rent to fall into arrears. When they reappeared, around the time they asked their aunt for money, they said they had been on a walking holiday.
And then at some point before Christmas last year the twins travelled the 300 miles from Cheshire to Dover. No record has been found of them staying at a hotel or guesthouse – it appears that they spent their last night sleeping rough. They had told no one that they were going to Dover, or why they were going there.
The coroner found that there was insufficient evidence to say whether the twins had committed suicide, or whether their death was just a tragic accident. She therefore recorded an open verdict.
This particular family may not have been touched by the family justice system, but it certainly could have been. Whatever, I think there is a lesson in this for those with an interest in family justice: there are many different types of family, and we must never judge another family by reference to our own perceptions of what a ‘family’ should be. Even a brother and sister living their lives together is a ‘family’, and should be respected as such. If the Burgess twins had felt that they would be treated the same as any other family then perhaps they would have found it easier to interact with society, rather than hide away from it. We will never know.
By the same token when non-traditional families do come into touch with the family justice system, those members of the system who deal with them must ensure that they do so with an open mind, accepting that they are just as valid as the ‘traditional’ family. It would be an easy trap to fall into to think that there is something inherently ‘wrong’ with a ‘non-traditional’ arrangement. I’m not sure that it is the duty of the family justice system to support the family, but certainly if it is then the family must be supported in all its forms. Even if the system does not have that duty it must not use its powers to try to force a family into a particular form, or to discourage a family from taking a ‘non-traditional’ form.
OK, I’ve strayed from the story, and perhaps what happened to Bernard and Muriel bears no relevance to any of this. Still, I do wonder how the family justice system might have treated them if it had come into contact with them, perhaps because the authorities were concerned that they were unable to manage their affairs. Would it have automatically assumed that there was something ‘wrong’ with them, or would it have accepted them as they were? The mere fact that the twins might have been desperately unhappy after the death of their mother does not mean that they were not entitled to choose how to spend the rest of their lives. On the other hand, if they did bring their lives to an end by mutual agreement, one is left wondering whether if there had been some sort of state intervention in their lives they might still be alive today. Again, we will never know.
The full article about Bernard and Muriel can be read here.
Image by Immanuel Giel via Wikipedia under a Creative Commons licence