Weekly Family Law Update January 20, 2021

Hearing starting times and a brain damaged child

President concerned at long court hours

The President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane has expressed concern over widespread reports of family court hearings starting as early as 8am or as late as 4.30pm, in response to the pressure of the backlog of cases, exacerbated by the closure of courts due to the pandemic.

In a message entitled ‘The Road Ahead 2021’ Sir Andrew explained that the courts’ long-standing practice of not starting to hear cases before 10.00am and not sitting after 4.30pm, save to deal with urgent matters, arose from the need for the judges and court staff to prepare for the listed hearings before they start and then to undertake the administrative tasks that had accumulated by the end of the day. For the professionals, he said, the time before and after court is spent in preparation, drafting and discussion/negotiation.

He went on:

“Widespread reports suggest that this time, on the margins of the day, is now regularly being taken up by additional hearings – some starting as early as 8.00am or commencing at 4.30pm … I am clear that this development, laudable though the reasons behind it plainly are, is not tenable in terms of the human resources and well-being of all concerned. What is achievable in a sprint, is not sustainable in a marathon.

“It is, therefore, necessary for me to state that the normal sitting hours of the Family Court are between 10.00am and 4.30pm, with an adequate adjournment at lunchtime. Whilst a judge may decide that additional hearing time will be allocated outside these parameters, this should be seen as an exceptional occurrence, and not the norm, and should be limited to no more than a 30-minute extension to the court day. Cases which are genuinely urgent will, as they have always been, be allocated any necessary hearing time.”

Hospital can withdraw life support from brain damaged child

A court has ruled that a hospital can withdraw life support from a brain damaged five year old child.

When Pippa Knight was twenty months old she was diagnosed with acute necrotising encephalopathy (‘ANE’), a rare condition in which an acute febrile disease, usually a viral infection such as influenza, is followed rapidly by seizures, disturbance of consciousness, and ultimately brain damage. She was initially in hospital for some six months.

After she returned home her father, who had lost a young son from a previous relationship to meningitis and found it difficult to cope with the fact that another of his children was suffering so grievously, took his own life.

Tragically, in January 2019 ANE struck again, and Pippa was admitted to hospital again. Her condition deteriorated, and she had to be put on life support. She has remained on mechanical ventilation and is still in hospital nearly two years later.

The NHS Trust applied to the court for a ruling that ending treatment, and allowing Pippa to die, would be lawful and in her best interests. Her mother wanted doctors to allow her to be treated at home.

The application was heard by Mr Justice Poole in the High Court. After hearing evidence he concluded that continued mechanical ventilation was contrary to Pippa’s best interests. Accordingly he made a declaration that it was lawful and in Pippa’s best interests that mechanical ventilation should be withdrawn, and that there be clearly defined limits on the treatment provided to Pippa after that withdrawal of ventilation, with the effect that she would be allowed to die.