This poignant case tells a sad story, but an instructive one in terms of human rights and the ability of courts to interpret statutes in accordance with these rights under Section 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
The judge’s role in these difficult private cases is subject to the “stern test” laid down by Sir James Munby in Samantha Jeffries v BMI Healthcare Limited and others EWHC 2493 (Fam) . Respect for a statute’s obvious does not entail
that the judge must approach a case such as this bereft of humanity, empathy, compassion and sympathy. What it does mean is that the judge cannot allow his judgment to be swayed, or his decision to be distorted, by those very human emotions.
Background facts and law
The statute in question in that case and this was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, as amended by secondary legislation and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. More on that later. Here, the applicant sought a declaration that it was lawful for him to use an embryo created using his sperm and the eggs of his late wife in treatment with a surrogate. The embryo was created in 2018 when the applicant and his wife (C) were undergoing fertility treatment to fulfil their wish to have children of their own. The embryo is currently stored at the Centre for Reproductive and Genetic Health.
The applicant and his wife had undergone several unsuccessful cycles of IVF, the latter being private. They had remortgaged their house to pay for the treatment. A positive pregnancy with twin girls was confirmed in November 2018. C developed complications in her pregnancy at 18 weeks, which resulted in a uterine rupture, and she died on 25 February 2019. There was one remaining embryo which the applicant wished to use with a surrogate, to fulfil their joint wish for this to take place in such circumstances. He accepted there was no written consent by C for that to take place but said that they had not been given sufficient information or opportunity to give that written consent. It was that remaining embryo that was the subject of this application.
Now the Divisional Court has delivered its judgment in this controversial and difficult case. On 1 December 2020, it substantially upheld the Claimants’ challenge to the practice of prescribing puberty-blocking drugs to children, some as young as 10, with gender dysphoria.
The first Claimant, Quincy Bell, was born female. At about 15 she was prescribed puberty blocking drugs (PBs) to halt the development of female sexual characteristics. Subsequently she transitioned to a male using “cross-sex hormones” and then underwent a double mastectomy. She told the court her doubts began before the surgery and she now wished to identify as a woman, reverting to the sex on her original birth certificate. “I made a brash decision as a teenager” she said, “… trying to find confidence and happiness except now the rest of my life will be negatively affected…transition was a very temporary, superficial fix for a very complex identity issue.”
The second Claimant was the mother of 15 year old with autismexperiencing gender dysphoria whom she feared would be prescribed puberty-blockers.
The Claimants contended that prescribing these drugs to under 18s was unlawful because they lacked competence to give valid consent to the treatment, and were given misleading information.
A Local Authority (Respondent) v JB (by his Litigation Friend, the Official Solicitor) (Appellant) – UKSC 2020/0133 Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
The Supreme Court has upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that to have capacity to engage in sexual relations, a person needs to be able to understand that their sexual partner must have the capacity to consent to the sexual activity and must, in fact, consent before and during the sexual activity.
The appellant, JB, is a 37 year-old single man with a complex diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder combined with impaired cognition. He has a complex diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (Asperger’s syndrome) combined with impaired cognition as a result of suffering significant brain damage from epilepsy.
JB has expressed a strong desire to have a girlfriend and engage in sexual relations. Part of JB’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome caused him to be
…obsessionally fixated on a particular woman, sending inappropriate sexual messages, inappropriate touching, and targeting the vulnerable
His previous behaviour towards women has led the respondent local authority to conclude that he cannot safely have unsupervised contact with them. JB had argued in the Court of that he had capacity to consent to sexual relations in circumstances where the expert evidence had found that JB understood the mechanics of sexual acts and the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease but that his ‘understanding of consent’ was lacking.
The outcome for JB, if he was found to lack capacity to make decisions in respect of sexual relations, would be that he would be deprived of all sexual relations and that no other person could consent on his behalf (S27(1)(b) Mental Capacity Act 2005(MCA).
JB was successful at first instance in the Court of Protection, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision and found in favour of the Local Authority. On further appeal to the Supreme Court the court agreed with the Court of Appeal the result being that JB did, in fact, lack capacity.
In Bell and A v Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and others EWCA Civ 1363 the Court of Appeal advised judges to avoid formulating policy in an area of social and moral complexity.
Ever since the Divisional Court restricted the medical treatment of children experiencing gender dysphoria at the end of last year (see R (on the application of Bell and A) v Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and others), discussed on this blog here), the decision has provoked heated debate. Some lamented the distress of young sufferers deprived of treatment. Others applauded limits they said would prevent irreparable harm. On 17 September 2021 the Court of Appeal reversed the decision, but the dispute will continue to rage both in and outside the Courts.
The first Claimant, Keira Bell, is a former patient of the Tavistock who was prescribed puberty blockers at 16 to delay the onset of female sexual characteristics. She transitioned to a male using cross-sex hormones, had a double mastectomy, and then changed her mind, regretting the “brash decision” she said would negatively affect the rest of her life. Her case – accepted by the Divisional Court — was that the “innovative” and “experimental” nature of the treatment, specifically the use of puberty blockers, made it unlikely a child could validly consent to it.
D Borough Council v AB  EWHC 101 (COP) (28 January 2011) – Read judgment
In a case which is fascinating both legally and morally, a judge in the Court of Protection has ruled that a 41-year-old man with a mild learning disability did not have the mental capacity to consent to sex and should be prevented by a local council from doing so.
The case arose when a local council, following allegations that a mentally disabled man made sexual gestures towards children, sought a court order stating that “Alan” (a false name) did not have the mental capacity to consent to sexual relations. The council ultimately wanted Alan to be banned from having sexual relations with his former house-mate and sexual partner.
The High Court has ruled in favour of a 28-year-old woman who wanted her late husband’s sperm to be retained even though the correct written consent was not in place. Mrs Justice Hogg (‘Hogg J’) ruled that Mrs Warren has a right under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life) to decide to become a parent by her deceased husband.
Mr Brewer had put his sperm into storage in April 2005 in order to enable his wife, Elizabeth Warren, to conceive a child by him after his death. However, he was not advised by his Clinic as to the statutory steps he needed to take in order for his sperm to be stored for longer than 10 years. In the event, he sadly passed away shortly before the lawful expiry of his consent, leaving his widow insufficient time to decide whether she wished to conceive his child.
I have posted previously on the logistical difficulties in legislating against genetic discrimination.
The prospect that genetic information not only affects insurance and employment opportunities is alarming enough. But it has many other implications: it could be used to deny financial backing or loan approval, educational opportunities, sports eligibility, military accession, or adoption eligibility. At the moment, the number of documented cases of discrimination on the basis of genetic test results is small. This is probably due to the relatively few conditions for which there are currently definitive genetic tests, coupled with the expense and difficulty of conducting these tests. But genetic discrimination is a time bomb waiting to be triggered and the implications of whole genome sequencing (WGS) are considered in a very interesting and readable report by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing.
Why we should replace ‘revenge porn’ with ‘image based sexual abuse’ and reform the mens rea of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015
The digital world is becoming an increasingly dominant part of daily life. This has been thrown into sharp relief by the current public health crisis, which has seen almost every facet of our lives move online; from socialising, to work, to healthcare, to dating and sex. However, regulation of the digital world is struggling to keep pace with technological change (see the UK Human Rights Blog’s technology section for commentary on this phenomenon). Lawmakers simply cannot keep abreast of the reforms necessary to protect victims from online criminality. One area in which Parliament has made some progress is the sharing of private sexual images, or ‘revenge porn’, as it has come to be known. This article will outline recent developments in the law around sharing of private sexual images; interrogate the terminology used in this area; and suggest reforms to the relevant legislation.
In 2014, the Crown Prosecution Service published guidelines on existing legislation, in an attempt to support convictions for the crime of sharing private sexual images without consent. However, after mounting pressure from campaign groups, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (‘the Act’) created the offence of ‘Disclosing private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress’, which is punishable by up to two years in prison.
More recently, legislation around sharing private sexual images became the subject of a new campaign, seeking to make the act of threatening to share private sexual images a criminal offence. This campaign was supported by organisations such as Refuge, 44,615 of whose supporters wrote to government ministers requesting a change in the legislation. A reality television star, Zara Mcdermott, added her voice to this campaign in a BBC documentary entitled ‘Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn’. In the documentary, Ms McDermott recounts two instances of having private sexual images shared without her consent. The documentary also covers the harrowing story of Damilya Jossipalenya, who was at university in London when she jumped to her death from the window of her flat. Ms Jossipalenya’s suicide followed a campaign of harassment by her boyfriend, who had threatened to share a video of Ms Jossipalenya with her family in Kazakhstan. This segment of the documentary ends with Ms McDermott explaining why she believes the threat to share private sexual images can be equally as damaging as the act of sharing them.
The Court of Protection has ruled that an autistic woman with an IQ of 64 does not have the mental capacity to engage in sexual relations, on the basis that she does not understand the implications and cannot effectively deploy the information she has understood into her decisions.
H is a 29 year old woman with mild learning difficulties and atypical autism. Although there is potential for improvement in her conditions, they are life-long.
She had a history of a very early and very deep degree of sexualisation. H engaged in sexual behaviour with others which she did not always consent to, one man having been convicted in 2003 of her attempted rape, and when she did consent the behaviour was still unconventional and exploitative. She had been on the child protection register and had extensive entries in her adult records with the local authority. In short, she is highly sexualised and vulnerable.
ARB v IVF Hammersmith & Another  Civ 2803 (17 December 2018) – read judgment
Legal policy in the UK has traditionally prohibited the granting of damages for the wrongful conception or birth of a child in cases of negligence. In this case the Court of Appeal has confirmed that this bar is equally applicable to a wrongful birth arising from a breach of contract.
The facts of the case are set out in my podcast on the first instance decision (Episode 12 of Law Pod UK). Briefly, an IVF clinic had implanted the claimant father’s gametes into his former partner without his consent. This occurred after the couple had sought fertility treatment at the clinic resulting in the birth of a son some years previously. Following standard practice, the clinic froze five embryos made with their gametes. Subsequently, the couple separated. Some time after this separation the mother, R, attended the clinic without ARB and informed the staff that they had decided to have another child. The form requiring consent from ARB for thawing and implanting the embyro was signed by R, and the clinic failed to notice the forgery. R went on to give birth to a healthy daughter, E, who is now the sibling of ARB’s son. There is a Family Court order confirming parental responsibility and shared residence in respect of both children. Continue reading →
M, R (on the application of) Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority  EWCA Civ 611 (30 June 2016)
The Court of Appeal has ruled that a 60 year old woman may use her daughter’s frozen eggs to give birth to her own grandchild. Her daughter, referred to as A in the judgment, died of cancer at the age of 28 in 2011. The High Court had dismissed M’s argument that the HFEA had acted unlawfully by refusing to allow the eggs to be exported to a fertility clinic in the United States where an embryo would be created using donor sperm, and implanted in the mother.
The HFEA is bound by statute (the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Act) to provide services using a person’s gametes only where that person consents. The difficulty here was that while A had consented to treatment for egg removal and storage, including storage after her death, she had not completed a specific form giving details of the use that was now proposed.
The essence of the appellants’ challenge was there was “clear evidence” of what A wanted to happen to her eggs after she died. “All available evidence” showed that she wanted her mother to have her child after her death, the Court was told.
Arden LJ, giving the judgement of the court, found that the judge below had reached his conclusion on the basis of a “misstatement of certain of the evidence” about A’s consent by the Committee. Continue reading →
KW (by her litigation friend) and others v Rochdale Council (Court of Appeal)  EWCA Civ 1054 – read judgment
This was an appeal against a ruling by Mostyn J in the Court of Protection concerning a consent order between an incapacitated woman, the appellant, and the local authority ( EWCOP 13). The judge had held that the 52 year old appellant, who had been severely incapacitated following surgery, had not been subject to deprivation of liberty contrary to Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights by her 24 hour care package. In his view, the test for deprivation of liberty in Cheshire West and Chester Council v P  UKSC 19 did not apply. In paragraph 17 of his judgment Mostyn J remarked that it was impossible to see how the protective measures in place for KW could linguistically be characterised as a “deprivation of liberty”. Quoting from JS Mill, he said that the protected person was “merely in a state to require being taken care of by others, [and] must be protected against their own actions as well as external injury”. At para 25, he said that he found that KW was not “in any realistic way being constrained from exercising the freedom to leave, in the required sense, for the essential reason that she does not have the physical or mental ability to exercise that freedom”.
He therefore ordered that it was in KW’s best interests to reside at the address at which she was residing and to receive a package of care in accordance with her assessed needs. The Court of Appeal upheld her appeal against this ruling, holding that the judge had been bound by Cheshire West and had made a material error of law. Continue reading →
A and others (In the matter of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008) – read judgment
This case is best summed up in Sir James Munby’s own words:
This judgment relates to a number of cases where much joy but also, sadly, much misery has been caused by the medical brilliance, unhappily allied with the administrative incompetence, of various fertility clinics. The cases I have before me are, there is every reason to fear, only the small tip of a much larger problem.
These cumulative cases
must raise questions as to the adequacy if not of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s regulation then of the extent of its regulatory powers. That the incompetence to which I refer is, as I have already indicated, administrative rather than medical is only slight consolation, given the profound implications of the parenthood which in far too many cases has been thrown into doubt. This is a matter I shall return to at the end of this judgment.
Updated | On 5 November 2010 judgment was handed down in JIH v News Group Newspapers ( EWHC 2818 (QB)) – Read judgment.
Update, 18 November 2010: The case has returned to the High Court after the Daily Telegraph reported a key detail relating to JIH’s identity. This was contrary – said JIH – to the court order. Mr Justice Tugendhat refused the application by JIH that his/her identity not be disclosed. However, he did sound a warning that “editors and publishers have regard to the “duties and responsibilities” referred to in Art 10(2) itself. These duties and responsibilities include a requirement that they comply with orders of the court, and that they take all necessary steps to ensure that journalists understand this necessity.” If they ignore that warning, warned the judge, they may be found in contempt of court.
This post by Mark Thomson first appeared on the media law blog Inforrm, and is reproduced with permission and thanks
The Christian Institute and others (Appellants) v The Lord Advocate (Respondent) (Scotland)  UKSC 51 – read judgment here
The Supreme Court has today unanimously struck down the Scottish Parliaments’s Named Persons scheme as insufficiently precise for the purposes of Article 8, overturning two previous decisions at the Court of Session (see our previous coverage here).
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