You’re entitled to your own beliefs, but don’t expect the court to follow them

Family Law|June 26th 2019

Occasionally when reading law reports one comes across litigants who wish to follow their own rules, rather than those set out in the law. I am not referring to people who simply don’t like the law, or the way it applies to them. I am talking about people who have their own set of beliefs, which they consider should govern the way in which they lead their lives. A common example of this is the ‘freemen on the land’ movement, whose members believe that they are only bound by statute laws if they consent to them. Needless to say, such a belief receives short shrift from the court.

I came across another example the other day, and one that I had not seen before, in the case Re T (A Child). The child’s father held a belief system, which Mr Justice Hayden described as “unusual and somewhat eccentric”. I will explain it in a moment, but before I do so I should say that Mr Justice Hayden should be commended for giving the father’s beliefs respect that many would say they do not deserve, even if they were completely disregarded when it came to making the decision faced by the court.

That decision concerned the registration of the birth of a child who we are told was born in the Spring of this year, and is the subject of care proceedings. The child has been given a name and surname, but the registration was ‘strenuously resisted’ by the father, due to his beliefs. The mother was not prepared to register the child’s birth herself, but she was not opposed to somebody else registering it on her behalf.

I will try to explain what the father’s beliefs are. They appear to revolve around the concept of ‘personal sovereignty’. He believes that:

“We are each our own sovereign. We come from the Earth, we are the creations of the universe. We are governed by a Common Law but only to the extent that we depart from three principles. These three imperatives are: to do no harm; to cause no loss; to inflict no injury.”

The father, we are told, places great emphasis on the Cestui Cue Vie Act 1666, a statute that, remarkably, is still in force (you can find it here). ‘Cestui Cue Vie’ means something like “he for whose lifetime (something is held)”, which I admit isn’t very informative.

To explain, we will have a little history lesson (at least as I understand the background to the Act). The perceptive reader may have noted that the date of the Act coincides with the Great Fire of London. It is also just one year after the Great Plague of 1665. Those two events of course left huge numbers of dead, many of whom were never found or identified, and were therefore simply ‘missing, presumed dead’. That, of course, left a legal problem: what was to happen to their estates if you could not prove that they were dead? The government of the day came up with the answer: if a person is missing for seven years they are considered to be dead (‘beyond the seas’), and the government will take control of their property, at least until they were proved to be alive.

OK, back to the case. The father believes that the Act is the route by which the government ‘help themselves to money and property.’ And finally, the link to birth registration is explained by Mr Justice Hayden:

“It is in this context that when a birth is registered, [the father] considers this to be the equivalent of an ‘entry into a ship’s manifest’, in which the child becomes ‘an asset to the country which has boarded a vessel to sail on the high seas.’ … The essence of [the father’s] objection is his belief that registration will cause his son to become controlled by a State which he perceives to be authoritarian and capricious.”

At this point I will repeat myself. Needless to say, these beliefs, fascinating though they are, received short shrift from the court.

It was clearly in the child’s interests that his birth be registered, in order that he may be recognised as a citizen and entitled to the benefits of such citizenship. The legal question was: did the local authority have the power to register the birth? For the purpose of this post I don’t need to go into the legal niceties. Suffice to say that Mr Justice Hayden was satisfied that the Local Authority could intervene to assert its own parental responsibility as a ‘qualified informant’ to register the birth.

You can read the full judgment here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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