You will have no doubt heard about the tragic case of a young girl dying of cancer whose wish was for her body to be cryogenically frozen; her hope being that one day in the future a cure will be found for cancer and that her body can be ‘reactivated’ so that she can live a full life.
The facts of the case are interesting anyway but more so for family lawyers because the application before court was a family law case regarding a ‘Specific Issue’ in private Children law proceedings.
The proper title of the case is Re JS (Disposal of Body). It fell to be decided before a court because two separated parents could not agree on how their daughter’s body should be disposed of after death and she was not of the age of 18 or over to make that decision herself.
Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 was therefore invoked which states that:
‘”a specific issue order” means an order giving directions for the purpose of determining a specific question which has arisen, or which may arise, in connection with any aspect of parental responsibility for a child’
It follows therefore that specific issue orders are particularly wide-ranging, usually dealing with questions such as where a child should be schooled; or if a child should be allowed to go on holiday with a parent; or any other ‘special’ life events which can’t be agreed upon by separated parents.
Obviously this particular case is unique in terms of the specific facts but the law regarding the decision is not unique. Mr Justice Peter Jackson, the judge deciding the case, was at pains to point out that he was not setting any precedent as has been suggested in the press. As the judge said, the court was “doing what it can and should do to provide means of resolving a dispute between the parents”
Mr Justice Peter Jackson decided that the girl’s mother was “best placed to manage this unusual and difficult situation” and made a specific issue order permitting the mother to continue to make arrangements for cryopreservation following the girl’s death. The judge also made an injunction preventing the father with having any dealings with the arrangements for the disposal of the girl’s body.
The temptation in this case is to view it as a precedent which allows people to be frozen and brought back to life. The reality is that the legal theory is something which family lawyers deal with on a relatively frequent basis (disregarding the science): two parents can’t agree on a specific issue regarding the parenting of a child; the court are asked to intervene and make an order based upon the child’s welfare.
Specific Issue orders regarding medical treatment for children are in fact quite commonplace and there is scope for applications to be made to the court for a decision whether the issue is seemingly trivial or scientifically ground breaking.