Hazel McHaffie

The Children Act

Mrs Justice Maye, Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, aka My Lady, is 59, childless, a much respected High Court judge and concert-level pianist. Her days are dominated by a relentless workload and the endless responsibility of forming judgements in the Family courts. Humdrum divorces and decisions relating to child protection run cheek by jowl alongside seriously challenging high-profile cases fraught with moral challenges.

A strict Chareidi marriage is broken when the wife seeks to educate herself and base family life on reality not religious tradition. Thirteen years together, the arranged marriage, cultures, identities, aspirations, family relationships, loyalties, all are called into question. Fiona’s heart goes out to the two little Jewish girls caught in the crossfire.

Conjoined twins, infant sons of Jamaican and Scottish parents, one potentially viable, abnormally thin from the effort of sustaining two bodies, the other a fattening shell leeching off his brother, become the focus of a battle that has the world on tiptoes watching. On one side, the hospital, masked surgeons at the ready poised to save the life of one of the boys. On the other, religious conviction refusing to sanction murder, preferring to let both boys die rather than risk reinterpreting their rigid code. Fiona’s decision will become the purview of newspaper columnists, taxi drivers, the nation at large, all clamouring for justice and right, vociferous, all certain of their own angle on what that right is. But what is the solution?

A seventeen-year-old boy, with leukaemia, urgently needs a blood transfusion, without which he will die within days or, worse, survive with grossly disabling impairments. But the patient himself, Adam, and his parents, are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses; they will not compromise their beliefs even if it means he will lose his life. Fiona knows the world is watching and will judge her decision. She takes the unorthodox step of going to visit the lad in hospital, a meeting that will have a profound effect on both of them. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out the consequences.

As if this wasn’t all a burden big enough for anyone to carry, Fiona is dealing with a major domestic crisis at home. How can she keep the professional and the personal from encroaching on each other? Which takes precedence?

This story, The Children Act, nudges against my own field of interest, the philosophical and moral points interweaving with the legal decisions. Exactly the kind of issues I’ve debated long and hard. Replicas of the kind of cases I’ve followed closely in real life. But Fiona herself is steeped in precedent and the finer points of legal argument, well trained, very experienced. She’s quick to make the distinction: This court is a court of law, not of morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law for the situation before us – a situation which is unique.

This is author Ian McEwan at his best. Giving us a fascinating insight into a legal mind toying with the niceties of various options, arguments and counter-arguments, balancing emotional responses against professional duty. A mind that must cut through the various moral claims and determine the one course of action that will remain defensible under minute scrutiny, robust enough to become, at least in part, legal precedent in the future. And sometimes, where every choice has a downside, be bold enough to choose the least undesirable outcome, the lesser evil. Even, in extremis, be courageous enough to find argument in ‘the doctrine of necessity’ – an idea established in common law that in certain limited circumstances, which no parliament would ever care to define, it was permissible to break the criminal law to prevent a greater evil.

Small wonder that some of these cases haunt Fiona, leave her agonising internally, shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. She’s famed for her elegant summations, her cool detachment, her wise decisions, but even so, on occasion, she agonises retrospectively about her exact phrasing, her final judgement. And never more so than when she becomes involved with young Adam, only weeks from his eighteenth birthday, who is determined to hold fast to his religious heritage – even unto death. These cases leave scar tissue in the memory. They also attract opprobrium in the shape of a postbag of critical mail … there began to arrive in small pastel-coloured envelopes the venomous thoughts of the devout … some deployed abusive language, some said they longed to do her physical harm. A few of those claimed to know where she lived.

Sobering, too, to realise that there are other cases which fall outside the jurisdiction of judges like Fiona Maye, which would perhaps be even harder to bear. Cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts: children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbours selectively deaf to the screaming, and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

A slim volume, The Children Act, which came out in 2014, deals with a massive issue, and I highly recommend it. Last week supermarket Tesco was giving it away free of charge – presumably publicity for the film, starring Emma Thompson as My Lady, which comes out tomorrow. I plan to be there!

PS
Friday:
We duly went to the very first showing this morning and had the unnerving but rather special experience of being the only people in the whole cinema! The film’s superb and well worth seeing.

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.