As has been widely reported in the media, the High Court have recently ruled on the case of little Charlie Gard.
Mr Justice Francis, at the High Court, has ruled in this tragic case, that eight-month-old Charlie’s life support could be withdrawn and that he receive palliative care.
Charlie suffers from a rare genetic condition, mitochondrial depletion syndrome, causing progressive muscle weakness and brain damage, and doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) had concluded that nothing more could be done for him.
His parents Chris Gard and Connie Yates were asking the court to agree to a plan for him to go for experimental treatment in the USA, but the court found that it was “very unlikely” that the treatment identified would help his condition.
The medical team at GOSH told the court that they believed it was time to stop his life support. It was a Court of Protection case, and Charlie was also represented by a court appointed guardian and legal team. The parents have until May 2 to appeal the decision.
Mr Justice Francis said it was “with the heaviest of hearts but with complete conviction for Charlie’s best interests” that he was taking the decision to allow the hospital to withdraw all but palliative care for Charlie to “permit Charlie to die with dignity”.
The case is striking for all sorts of reasons. On a human level, it is clearly a tragedy for the family and for little Charlie, and no doubt for all those who are caring for him, too. For us lawyers, it is a reminder that sometimes the courts are asked to intervene in ‘life or death’ decisions.
Mr Justice Francis did comment that he was concerned that the family were not given legal aid to be represented in court in such a case, commenting that this was “remarkable”. “Why weren’t the family given legal aid in this case?” the judge said. “As I understand it, neither of them is working because they’ve dedicated the last eight months to their son. I can’t think of anything more profound than what the parents are facing here.”
Instead, they were represented pro bono (for free) by their legal team from London firm Bindmans. Opposition Politicians have queried the unfairness of this. As a result of cuts to legal aid introduced in 2013, by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act (“LASPO”), many areas of legal aid were taken out of scope. Both the Labour Party and Lib-Dems have spoken out about the unfairness of a system that allowed for the state to be represented in such a case, but not the parents, who instead had to rely on the generosity of a law firm and barristers to represent them free of charge.
The Government have recently announced a review of the Legal Aid cuts, so time will tell whether any changes will come about as a result. In the meantime, Charlie’s parents have until 2nd May to decide whether to accept the decision made this week, or whether they have sufficient legal grounds to issue an Appeal against the decision. Either way, it is a heartbreaking position for them.
Ruth Miller is a Family Law Specialist and partner at Turpin & Miller