This is a Court of Appeal decision in relation to a mother, who amongst other things suggested that she and her five year old should be capable of being ‘breatharians’, that is living without food and possibly water.
C (A Child) (Special Guardianship Order)  EWCA Civ 2281 (20 December 2019)
[This is annoying, because I drafted this last week, but needed to add the Ricky Jay references in, and then lo and behold, this week’s episode of QI touched on Breatharians, making me look like some sort of Johnny-come-lately..]
34… He decided that they were established based on the matters set out in the threshold document. “Key to the crossing of the threshold” were the parents’ respective mental health difficulties. These had “rendered them effectively unable to care for C when these proceedings commenced”. He was also satisfied that the parents’ “rejection of modern medical care” had led to C’s health needs being neglected in particular in respect of the discrepancy in the length of her legs which affected her gait. This was “an example of the problems which the Local Authority say would arise if C’s parents were to reject medicine entirely in the future”. He identified one “controversial factual” dispute, namely whether the mother would continue to take the prescribed medication, to which I return below.
35.When dealing with the background, the judge referred to the parents’ lifestyle and their beliefs. He commented that the mother has “adopted a lifestyle which can be said to go well beyond the merely alternative” and that her beliefs are “deep-rooted”. She “has difficulty accepting not just the validity of Western medicine but that such medicine is not in itself harmful”. He also said that: “Perhaps at its most extreme the mother has suggested that both she and C ought to be capable of being ‘breatharians’, meaning that they should be able to survive without food and possibly water”.
36.The judge expressly “emphasised” that, having heard the mother give evidence, she “clearly loves her daughter dearly and wants by her own lights the very best for her”. He also referred to the “full benefit which natural parenting brings to a child”; he attached “particular importance” to this. The judge separately addressed C’s wishes and feelings, as set out below, but he also expressly recognised that C “will at some level want and she certainly needs a close relationship with her mother”.
37.The judge summarised the evidence from the psychiatrist. He noted the mother’s initial refusal to take anti-psychotic medication and that since then she has “abided by [her] medication regime”. In her oral evidence the mother said that “she will continue to take that medication for so long as it is advised”. The judge recorded the medical evidence that, if she “abides by her current regime, then there is … a good prospect that her condition will remain stable and continue to improve”.
38.One issue had a significant impact on the judge’s assessment of the mother and on his ultimate determination. This was whether the mother had or had not told the social worker who undertook the parenting assessment that “she would cease to take her medication when the proceedings come to an end”. The mother disputed that she had said this. Her evidence was that she had told the parenting assessor that she had explored alternatives and found one in ginseng tea, adding that she “would not in fact, certainly if so advised, cease to take her medication”.
39.The judge preferred the evidence of the social worker. He was “a professional assessor”. The “answer had struck [the social worker] and he checked it with the mother”. This was a “highly significant element within his assessment”. Further, the judge noted that the mother “has for so long adhered to an alternative lifestyle that I cannot believe [she] only recently … discovered ginseng”. Nor, he added, “is it in any way clear to me how the mother could rationally believe that ginseng was a potential cure for her mental illness”.
40.The judge concluded that this issue indicated more than that the mother was “still merely lacking insight into her condition”. He concluded that the mother’s explanation of her conversation with the social worker had been untruthful, which led him to question “how sincere the mother is in other aspects of her evidence”. I return to this below.
41.This led the judge to have “difficulty in accepting the mother’s evidence” that she would abide by the treatment programme, in particular medication, for her mental health disorder. This, in turn, led the judge to conclude that “there remains a significant chance … that the mother’s current progress in terms of her mental health will not be sustained”. If the mother did not continue with the treatment, there was “not simply a risk but, according to (the psychiatrist), close to a certainty of a relapse”. The mother’s condition would “deteriorate within weeks or months” and she would be “unavailable” to C. This “undoubtedly represents a potential source of future harm to” C.
The mother denied that she had told the assessor that she would cease taking her anti-psychotic medication, and instead asserted that she had been exploring other options including ginseng, but would not cease her medication if doctors advised against it.
This is the first reported case involving breatharians that I’ve been able to find.
Essentially the belief is that through meditation and enlightenment, a person can achieve a state where they do not need food to survive and can survive on sunlight alone.
One of my favourite books, Ricky Jay’s “Jay’s Journal of anomalies” has a chapter all about the Victorian practice of people who claimed to have done this and who would lock themselves in rooms without food or water and then charge people to come and look at them through windows or keyholes.
One particular one is Bernard Cavanagh, of County Mayo, who took London by storm by allowing them to view his supervised fast, which he said had been in progress for 5 1/2 years.
Jay gives a lovely piece of interview / interrogation where you MIGHT think Mr Cavanagh is being somewhat elusive
Q: Is it true you haven’t eaten for 5 years?
C : Wouldn’t I eat if I was hungry?
Q: But do you eat or drink anything?
C : Wouldn’t I drink if I was thirsty?
Q : Don’t you ever take anything in the shape of food?
C : Wasn’t the door locked up?
He was finally undone by a Mrs Harriet Hatt, who had been to see and marvel at the Fasting Man, and was thus surprised the next day to see the same man in a butcher’s shop ordering ‘a saveloy, threepenny worth of bread and a quarter pound of ham cut particularly fat…
Mr Cavanagh admitted that he had bought the food, having been tempted, but that he had thrown it away without eating it.
At the inquiry conducted by the Mayor, one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read was uttered.
“What, said the Mayor, would become of our country, prosperous in commerce, magnificent in war, happy in land, triumphant on the ocean, what would become of us if we suffered Cavanaghs to purchase saveloys?”
Mr C was sentenced to prison, once month for the saveloy, fourteen days for the bread and six weeks for the ham cut particularly fat…
I did find litigation based on the idea that mystics can control all of their bodily functions and even appear to need no food, drink or even show signs of life, so I invite you to go down the rabbit hole of this:-
Where litigation have gone on for about five years now as to whether a swami in a freezer is dead (hint yes) or has simply been holding his breath all this time (no) – the people arguing that he is still alive are not at all motivated by that allowing them to continue to control his assets of $170 million, not in the slightest.
Anyway, back to our case
The appeal was based on an assertion that the Judge was wrong to have made a Special Guardianship Order and had not properly applied Hedley J’s Re L case (that society and the Courts must be willing to tolerate very diverse forms of parenting ). People seem to continue to not appreciate that the Court of Appeal have ruled that Re L is applicable to arguments as to whether threshold is crossed, but not where the threshold is crossed.
Re H (A Child) (Appeal)  2 FLR 1171
76.When dealing with public law proceedings, McFarlane LJ dealt specifically with the relevance of Hedley J’s remarks in Re L. They were “entirely directed to the question of the threshold criteria”, at , and were “describing the line that is to be crossed before the state may interfere in family life”, at . He also noted that although “Hedley J’s words in para  are referred to in each of the main judgments in the Supreme Court in Re B [Re B (a child) (care order: proportionality: criterion for review)  3 All ER 929], such references are in the context of consideration of the s. 31 threshold rather than welfare”, at . He concluded, therefore, that the trial judge’s reference to what Hedley J had said about the need for society to “be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting” was “out of place, as a matter of law, in a case where the issue did not relate to the s. 31 threshold, but solely to an evaluation of welfare”, at . The judgment then addresses the issue of proportionality, at  and .
The Court of Appeal gently reminded everyone of this, and then set out that so far as issues about parents ‘character’ were concerned, the Court must confine those to the way that their character may affect their parenting.
79.I deal first with ground (a), namely the submission that the decision in this case was based on a flawed approach to the mother’s lifestyle and beliefs and offends against the principle that the courts “must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting”.
80.As referred to above, the case of Re L, from which the words quoted above derive, was concerned with threshold. The present case is not concerned with threshold. However, although McFarlane LJ considered that, what might be called the Re L perspective, is “out of place” in a welfare evaluation, it is clear that the “character of the parents” is relevant “only to the extent that it affects the quality of their parenting”, as referred to by Lord Wilson in Re B, at . Although that case was also dealing with the issue of whether the section 31 threshold has been crossed, in my view the relevant consideration when the court is making a welfare determination remains the extent to which the character of the parents, in terms of lifestyle and beliefs, “affects the quality of their parenting”, to adopt Lord Wilson’s phrase from Re B, at . This is because the court is assessing the welfare consequences for the child of that parenting.
81.The judge did describe the mother’s beliefs as “very strange” but this was in relation to the mother’s suggestion that she and C “ought to be capable of being ‘breatharians”. In my view, it is clear from other references in the judgment and, indeed, the overall structure of the judgment that the judge was specifically considering the manner in which the mother’s beliefs impacted on her care of C. The judge considered whether they were a potential source of harm and decided that they were. They were also relevant in the welfare analysis when the judge considered C’s needs. He was “not satisfied” that the mother “would, at the moment [or] in the longer term, be able to meet those needs”. None of these conclusions were based, as is submitted on behalf of the mother, on the judge’s “disapproval” of the mother’s beliefs but on the likely welfare consequences for C.
It seems very clear to me that in looking at the aspects of mother’s character that had an impact on whether she would be likely to comply with the necessary medication to manage her mental health and a belief that she and her child could survive without food and drink, those aspects were obviously relevant to parenting.
The Court of Appeal also give this guidance
67…I agree with the submission that, when a court is determining care proceedings, and even if the ultimate decision is to make a special guardianship order (which is legally not a public law order), there are good reasons for the court dealing with the threshold criteria. In particular, this will set out the court’s conclusions on the evidence and provide a clear factual foundation both for the basis of the order and for any applications made in the future.