The decision of the President in Re X (a child) (surrogacy : Time limit) 2014
This was a case where the commissioners of a surrogacy arrangement were late getting their application for a Parental Order before the Court.
That caused them to fall foul of
s54(3) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008
“the applicants must apply for the order during the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which the child is born.”
Although it seems that there is very little mischief (and Parliament never said why they wanted a 6 month cut off date), the Courts have previously interpreted this pretty plain English provision in the ordinary plain English sense of the word – if you don’t get your application in before the Court before the child is 6 months old, you can’t have your order. (Parliament did not give the Court a discretion here to perhaps allow an application with leave, or allow extenuating circumstances, or to permit the Court to make the order of its own motion notwithstanding that there was not a valid application)
It has been one of those bits of law that is just, if you are too late, tough luck.
That was, until the President got one of these cases. I have to say that everyone involved clearly worked hard to achieve a legal framework in which the Court could make a Parental Order, that clearly being a better order for the child involved than anything else that could be come up with. (My personal view on it is that “must” is as clear as can be, and that whilst I support the aim to soften that into a judicial discretion, I think its going beyond the scope of the separation of powers. I would personally, have been happier with a Judge saying that in a case of this kind, the Act is incompatible with article 8 and that Parliament should look at the wording again to GIVE a discretion for exceptional circumstances)
That said, I think the way around it is clever, and there’s nobody better at making words behave as he tells them than the President.
This is the thrust of it. Where Parliament uses a mandatory form of wording, but doesn’t set out what the consequences are if that mandatory form of wording isn’t followed, is there an implicit discretion?
- The second strand in the argument put forward by Ms Isaacs and Mr Maynard is based on the long line of cases of which the decision of Lord Penzance, sitting as Dean of Arches, in Howard v Bodington (1877) 2 PD 203 is usually taken as the starting point. Lord Penzance said this (pages 210-211):
“The real question in all these cases is this: A thing has been ordered by the legislature to be done. What is the consequence if it is not done? In the case of statutes that are said to be imperative, the Courts have decided that if it is not done the whole thing fails, and the proceedings that follow upon it are all void. On the other hand, when the Courts hold a provision to be mandatory or directory, they say that, although such provision may not have been complied with, the subsequent proceedings do not fail. Still, whatever the language, the idea is a perfectly distinct one. There may be many provisions in Acts of Parliament which, although they are not strictly obeyed, yet do not appear to the Court to be of that material importance to the subject-matter to which they refer, as that the legislature could have intended that the non-observance of them should be followed by a total failure of the whole proceedings. On the other hand, there are some provisions in respect of which the Court would take an opposite view, and would feel that they are matters which must be strictly obeyed, otherwise the whole proceedings that subsequently follow must come to an end. Now the question is, to which category does the provision in question in this case belong?
… I believe, as far as any rule is concerned, you cannot safely go further than that in each case you must look to the subject-matter; consider the importance of the provision that has been disregarded, and the relation of that provision to the general object intended to be secured by the Act; and upon a review of the case in that aspect decide whether the matter is what is called imperative or only directory.”
- Down the years a vast jurisprudence developed around the imperative / directory dichotomy. There is no purpose to be gained by entering into this morass, for the dichotomy has fallen into disfavour in recent years: see the historical analysis by Lord Steyn in Regina v Soneji and another  UKHL 49,  1 AC 340, paras 15-22.
- Lord Steyn identified what he called the core problem (para 14):
“A recurrent theme in the drafting of statutes is that Parliament casts its commands in imperative form without expressly spelling out the consequences of a failure to comply. It has been the source of a great deal of litigation. In the course of the last 130 years a distinction evolved between mandatory and directory requirements. The view was taken that where the requirement is mandatory, a failure to comply with it invalidates the act in question. Where it is merely directory, a failure to comply does not invalidate what follows. There were refinements. For example, a distinction was made between two types of directory requirements, namely (1) requirements of a purely regulatory character where a failure to comply would never invalidate the act, and (2) requirements where a failure to comply would not invalidate an act provided that there was substantial compliance.”
He concluded (para 23):
“Having reviewed the issue in some detail I am in respectful agreement with the Australian High Court that the rigid mandatory and directory distinction, and its many artificial refinements, have outlived their usefulness. Instead … the emphasis ought to be on the consequences of non-compliance, and posing the question whether Parliament can fairly be taken to have intended total invalidity. That is how I would approach what is ultimately a question of statutory construction.”
In applying that approach in the particular case Lord Steyn adopted (para 24) what he called “a purposive interpretation” of the statute in question.
That is not terribly simple stuff, even for law geeks, so I am grateful that the President gives a practical example
” … if your young daughter wants to go out with friends for the evening and you agree, but tell her that she must be home by eleven o’clock, she is under a duty to return by then. But this does not mean that her duty is to return by then or not at all. Rather, even if she fails to meet your deadline, she still remains under a duty to return home. On the other hand, if you contract with a conjuror to perform at your daughter’s birthday party, you want the conjuror and his tricks only for the party. His duty is accordingly limited to performing at the party held on your daughter’s birthday and, if he fails to turn up, he cannot discharge the duty later. In the present cases Parliament has placed the court under a duty, where appropriate, to make a confiscation order before it sentences an offender. If the court fails to do so and proceeds to sentence the offender first, does Parliament intend that – like your daughter – the court should remain under a duty to make the order? Or does Parliament intend that the duty should be limited so that – like the conjuror – the court can perform it only before sentencing?”
So, is s54(3)’s “MUST apply for the order during the period of six months after the child is born” like your daughter being in after eleven (in which case you would not be happy, but you’d still let her in the house i.e make the order) or is it like the conjuror booked for a birthday party turning up a week late, in which case he doesn’t get paid (and you don’t hear the application?)
I’d still say that it was the latter. I don’t know why Parliament put a hard cap on the time limit, or what the mischief was, but if they had wanted to give a Judge a discretion to hear the application out of time, it would have been a really simple clause 54(3) (b) addition “SAVE THAT a Court may grant leave for the application to be heard out of time if the Court considers it necessary to do so”.
As I’ve remarked before, if you are before the President and he finds a clever way of doing something, you should bet heavily on him doing it. I can’t recall a judgment where he says “It would be possible via very clever prestidigitation to do X, but I am not going to do X”
- Section 54 goes to the most fundamental aspects of status and, transcending even status, to the very identity of the child as a human being: who he is and who his parents are. It is central to his being, whether as an individual or as a member of his family. As Ms Isaacs correctly puts it, this case is fundamentally about Xs identity and his relationship with the commissioning parents. Fundamental as these matters must be to commissioning parents they are, if anything, even more fundamental to the child. A parental order has, to adopt Theis J’s powerful expression, a transformative effect, not just in its effect on the child’s legal relationships with the surrogate and commissioning parents but also, to adopt the guardian’s words in the present case, in relation to the practical and psychological realities of X’s identity. A parental order, like an adoption order, has an effect extending far beyond the merely legal. It has the most profound personal, emotional, psychological, social and, it may be in some cases, cultural and religious, consequences. It creates what Thorpe LJ in Re J (Adoption: Non-Patrial)  INLR 424, 429, referred to as “the psychological relationship of parent and child with all its far-reaching manifestations and consequences.” Moreover, these consequences are lifelong and, for all practical purposes, irreversible: see G v G (Parental Order: Revocation)  EWHC 1979 (Fam),  1 FLR 286, to which I have already referred. And the court considering an application for a parental order is required to treat the child’s welfare throughout his life as paramount: see in In re L (A Child) (Parental Order: Foreign Surrogacy)  EWHC 3146 (Fam),  Fam 106,  1 FLR 1143. X was born in December 2011, so his expectation of life must extend well beyond the next 75 years. Parliament has therefore required the judge considering an application for a parental order to look into a distant future.
- Where in the light of all this does the six-month period specified in section 54(3) stand? Can Parliament really have intended that the gate should be barred forever if the application for a parental order is lodged even one day late? I cannot think so. Parliament has not explained its thinking, but given the transcendental importance of a parental order, with its consequences stretching many, many decades into the future, can it sensibly be thought that Parliament intended the difference between six months and six months and one day to be determinative and one day’s delay to be fatal? I assume that Parliament intended a sensible result. Given the subject matter, given the consequences for the commissioning parents, never mind those for the child, to construe section 54(3) as barring forever an application made just one day late is not, in my judgment, sensible. It is the very antithesis of sensible; it is almost nonsensical. It is, after all, easy to imagine far from fanciful circumstances in which the application arrives too late: the solicitor misunderstands section 54(3) and excludes the day on which the child was born from his calculation of when time runs out; the solicitor’s legal executive is delayed by a broken down train or a traffic jam and arrives at the court office just after it has closed; on the way to their solicitor’s office to give instructions the commissioning parents are involved in a car crash that leaves them both in a coma from which they recover only after the six-month period has elapsed. Why should they be barred? Even more to the point, why should the wholly innocent child be barred by such mishap? Let it be assumed, though in truth, and with all respect to her, this is little more than speculation, that the underlying policy is that identified by Eleanor King J in JP v LP and others  EWHC 595 (Fam), namely to provide for the speedy consensual regularisation of the legal parental status of a child’s carers following a birth resulting from a surrogacy arrangement; that policy surely does not require section 54(3) to be read as meaning that any delay, however trivial, is to be fatal. One can see why Eleanor King J was concerned that there should not be what she referred to as delay over “a protracted period”, but that is a different point.
- I have considered whether the result at which I have arrived is somehow precluded by the linguistic structure of section 54, which provides that “the court may make an order … if … the [relevant] conditions are satisfied.” I do not think so. Slavish submission to such a narrow and pedantic reading would simply not give effect to any result that Parliament can sensibly be taken to have intended.
- I conclude, therefore, that section 54(3) does not have the effect of preventing the court making an order merely because the application is made after the expiration of the six month period. That is a conclusion which I come to, without reference to the Convention and on a straightforward application of the principle in Howard v Bodington (1877) 2 PD 203.
As I think I’ve conveyed, I’m no big fan of s54(3) and if Parliament were to amend it to add a clause (b) giving judicial discretion to allow an application out of time, I’d be delighted.
I’m not terribly delighted about a judicial decision that reads ambiguity and discretion into a perfectly unambiguous clause. The commissioning parents in this case did not make their application one day late. They realised too late that the statute applied and were already out of time (but “ignorance of the law is no excuse”) and now the application is thirteen months out of time.
- Having got thus far in the analysis, the remaining question is whether in the present case the commissioning parents are to be allowed to pursue an application made some two years and two months after X was born. In my judgment, they are.
- This period in fact falls into two parts: first, the period from December 2011, when X was born, until July 2013, when Judge Hindley first drew attention to the significance of section 54; second, the period thereafter until the application was issued in February 2014. In the particular circumstances of this case, the latter period, in my judgment, properly falls out of account. Until Ms Isaacs suggested otherwise in January 2014, everyone – the parties’ legal advisers and the judges dealing with the case – were agreed that section 54(3) presented an insuperable obstacle. And that was hardly surprising given the decisions of Hedley J and Theis J referred to in paragraph 21 above. So the true focus must be on the period of thirteen months delay from June 2012, when the six month period expired, until the hearing before Judge Hindley in July 2013.
- In one sense that is a long time, both in absolute terms and when compared with the statutory time limit of six months. And it is a very long time indeed compared with the matter of a few days that were fatal to the appellant in Adesina v Nursing and Midwifery Council  EWCA Civ 818,  1 WLR 3156. But principle demands that I have regard to the statutory subject matter, the background, and the potential impact on the parties if I allow section 54(3) to bar the application. I repeat in this context what I have already said in paragraphs 54-56 above. There are, without labouring the point, three aspects of a parental order which very obviously and very fundamentally distinguish it from the kind of case which the court was concerned with in Adesina. The first is that a parental order goes not just status but to identity as a human being. The second is that the court is looking, indeed is required by statute to look, to a future stretching many, many decades into the future. The third is that the court is concerned not just with the impact on the applicant whose default in meeting the time limit is being scrutinised but also with the impact on the innocent child, whose welfare is the court’s paramount concern. In these circumstances the court is entitled, indeed in my judgment it is bound, to adopt a more liberal and relaxed approach than was appropriate in Adesina. After all, as Maurice Kay LJ recognised in Adesina, what the court is required to do, albeit it is required to do no more, is to secure compliance with the Convention. I would not be doing that if I were to deny the commissioning parents and X access to the court.
- I intend to lay down no principle beyond that which appears from the authorities. Every case will, to a greater or lesser degree, be fact specific. In the circumstances of this case the application should be allowed to proceed. No one – not the surrogate parents, not the commissioning parents, not the child – will suffer any prejudice if the application is allowed to proceed. On the other hand, the commissioning parents and the child stand to suffer immense and irremediable prejudice if the application is halted in its tracks.
I would add this one to the ever growing pile of “Presedents” -(phrase coined by Celtic Knot) and see these two blog posts by Lucy Reed http://www.pinktape.co.uk/rants/who-to-follow-the-precedent-or-the-president/ and David Burrows http://dbfamilylaw.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/clarity-in-law-precedent-law/
Of course our legal history is steeped in the tradition of Judges pushing language very hard to achieve an equitable outcome – I was probably the only person in my law class at college who thought that Lord Denning was in the wrong when he did this sort of thing. The President here has done the right thing for this family and this child, and I am probably being churlish in grumbling about it. But I hope we are not setting a precedent that a Parliamentary use of “must” is really just a jumping off point for negotiations…