I’m often a bit snippy about the President’s decisions in Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act cases, but I can’t fault him in this one.
A and Others (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008) 2015
This case involved eight cases where couples had made use of very well known and well regarded reputable fertility clinics within England, but as a result of mistakes in the clinics processes, found that not all of them had legal status with their own children and had to apply to Court for a Declaration of Parentage to resolve those issues.
The advocates involved were a roll-call of some of the best minds around, and one can see why.
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.
The question of who, in law, is or are the parent(s) of a child born as a result of treatment carried out under this legislation – the issue which confronts me here – is dealt with in Part 2, sections 33-47, of the 2008 Act. It is, as a moment’s reflection will make obvious, a question of the most fundamental gravity and importance. What, after all, to any child, to any parent, never mind to future generations and indeed to society at large, can be more important, emotionally, psychologically, socially and legally, than the answer to the question: Who is my parent? Is this my child?
Why has this arisen?
- The decision of Cobb J on 24 May 2013 in AB v CD and the Z Fertility Clinic  EWHC 1418 (Fam),  2 FLR 1357, brought to public attention and, more particularly, to the attention of the HFEA, the lamentable shortcomings in a clinic identified only as clinic Z which, in the judge’s view (para 74), had fallen “far short” of its obligations and which (para 88) had failed to comply with the conditions of the licence granted to it by the HFEA.
- I must return in due course to explain in more detail the relevant statutory requirements. For the moment I merely indicate two fundamental prerequisites to the acquisition of parenthood by the partner of a woman receiving such treatment. First, consents must be given in writing before the treatment, both by the woman and by her partner. The forms required for this in accordance with directions given by the HFEA are Form WP, to be completed by the woman, and Form PP, to be completed by her partner. Secondly, both the woman and her partner must be given adequate information and offered counselling.
- Following Cobb J’s judgment, the HFEA required all 109 licensed clinics to carry out an audit of their records. The alarming outcome was the discovery that no fewer than 51 clinics (46%) had discovered “anomalies” in their records: WP or PP forms absent from the records; WP or PP forms being completed or dated after the treatment had begun; incorrectly completed WP or PP forms (for example, forms not signed, not fully completed, completed by the wrong person or with missing pages); and absence of evidence of any offer of counselling. At the time of the hearing, I did not know how many cases there might be in all, how many families are affected and how many children there are whose parentage may be in issue – so far as I was aware the HFEA had never disclosed the full numbers – but it was clear (see below) that some clinics reported anomalies in more than one case. Since the hearing, the HFEA in a letter dated 1 September 2015 has indicated that there are a further 75 cases.
- As it happens, we are best informed about the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Centre for Reproductive Medicine, operated by Barts Health NHS Trust, which I shall refer to as Barts. It was the subject of a judgment given by Theis J on 13 February 2015: X v Y (St Bartholomew’s Hospital Centre for Reproductive Medicine Intervening)  EWFC 13. Moreover, it has been commendably open and frank about its failings (others seem to have been more coy), sharing its findings with the wider medical community as long ago as September 2014 when, at the instigation of the HFEA, they were published on the HFEA’s clinicfocus e-newsletter. Of 184 patients who had undertaken fertility treatment with donor sperm since April 2009, when the 2008 Act was implemented, there were 13 cases (7%) where legal parenthood was in issue.
- The picture thus revealed, and I am referring not just to Barts, is alarming and shocking. This is, for very good reason, a medical sector which is subject to detailed statutory regulation and the oversight of a statutory regulator – the HFEA. The lamentable shortcomings in one clinic identified by Cobb J, which now have to be considered in the light of the deeply troubling picture revealed by the HFEA audit and by the facts of the cases before me, are, or should be, matters of great public concern. The picture revealed is one of what I do not shrink from describing as widespread incompetence across the sector on a scale which must raise questions as to the adequacy if not of the HFEA’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.
All of these people put themselves in the hands of, as the President says, brilliant doctors, who brought them the gift of children, but also had put themselves in the hands of an administrative system upon which the entire notion of whether they were both legally that child’s parents. That administrative system did not always work.
As can be seen in this case, the wrong forms were sometimes used, forms were misplaced or lost.
For both of the couple to be legal parents, it is vital that before the treatment commences that the mother to be signs a form saying that she agrees and consents for the man to be the father in law of any child created, and that the father-to-be signs a form saying that he agrees and consents to be the father in law of any such child. That’s an essential component of the Act. If there is no such written consent, then the man would not be in law the father. [I’ve used mother and father for simplicity here – of course it is possible for two women to become parents under such an arrangement]
- The issues
- As will become apparent in due course, the cases before me raise three general issues of principle which it is convenient to address at this point.
- The first (which arises in Cases A, B, E, F and H) is whether it is permissible to prove by parol evidence that a Form WP or Form PP which cannot be found was in fact executed in a manner complying with Part 2 of the 2008 Act and whether, if that is permissible, and the finding is made, the fact that the form cannot be found prevents it being a valid consent, as involving a breach by the clinic of its record-keeping obligations. This was the issue decided by Theis J in X v Y (St Bartholomew’s Hospital Centre for Reproductive Medicine Intervening)  EWFC 13. In the light of her decision, with which, as I have said, I respectfully agree, the only question in such a case is a question of fact: Allowing for the fact that it can no longer be found, is it established on the evidence that there was a Form WP or Form PP, as the case may be, which was properly completed and signed before the treatment began?
- The second issue (which arises in Cases D and F) is the extent to which errors in a completed Form WP or Form PP can be ‘corrected’, either as a matter of construction or by way of rectification. A similar point (which arises in Cases E and F) is the extent to which errors in a completed Form IC can be ‘corrected’ This is a novel point in this context which, in my judgment, falls to be decided in accordance with long-established and well-recognised principles.
- I start with rectification. As a matter of general principle, I can see no reason at all why a Form WP or Form PP should be said to be, of its nature, a document which cannot be rectified. The fact that it is a document required by statute to be in a particular form (that is, “in writing” and “signed by the person giving it”) is, in my judgment, neither here nor there: compare the many cases where rectification has been decreed of conveyancing or trust documents similarly required by various provisions of the Law of Property Act 1925 to be in a particular form. Nor does it matter, in my judgment, that a Form WP or Form PP is used as part of, and, indeed, in order to comply with the requirements of, a statutory scheme. There is, for example, nothing in the language of any of the relevant provisions of Part 2 of the 2008 Act to suggest that rectification is impermissible. Contrast, for example, the well established rule that the Articles of Association of a company will not be rectified because rectification would be inconsistent with the provisions of the Companies Acts: see Scott v Frank F Scott (London) Ltd  Ch 794. So, in my judgment, if the criteria for rectification are otherwise established, a Form WP or a Form PP can be rectified.
- Quite apart from the equitable doctrine of rectification, the court can, as a matter of construction, ‘correct’ a mistake if (I put the matter generally, without any detailed exegesis) the mistake is obvious on the face of the document and it is plain what was meant. The reported examples of this are legion and stretch back over the centuries. They include cases of clear misnomer. Again, there is, in my judgment, no possible objection to the court taking this course in relation to a Form WP or a Form PP.
- The third issue (which arises in Cases A, C, D, E, F and H) is whether a properly completed Form IC is capable of operating as consent for the purposes of sections 37 and 44 of the 2008 Act
If you are wondering what ‘parol evidence’ is, then you are not alone. I wondered that too. Of course, if you all knew, then I was the only person wondering it, and now I feel bad.
Parol refers to verbal expressions or words. Verbal evidence, such as the testimony of a witness at trial.
In the context of contracts, deeds, wills, or other writings, parol evidence refers to extraneous evidence such as an oral agreement (a parol contract), or even a written agreement, that is not included in the relevant written document. The parol evidence rule is a principle that preserves the integrity of written documents or agreements by prohibiting the parties from attempting to alter the meaning of the written document through the use of prior and contemporaneous oral or written declarations that are not referenced in the document. [In short, any other supplementary evidence that would allow a Court to decide that yes, both ‘parents’ did agree that each would be a legal parent to that child]
I am pleased to say that the President did conclude that in each of these cases, there was parol evidence that the couples had all gone into this arrangement fully consenting to the legal parentage of the child, and thus the deficiencies in the forms or the missing status of the forms could be remedied and the Declaration of Parentage made.
i) The court can act on parol evidence to establish that a Form WP or a Form PP which cannot be found was in fact properly completed and signed before the treatment began;
ii) The court can ‘correct’ mistakes in a Form WP or a Form PP either by rectification, where the requirements for that remedy are satisfied, or, where the mistake is obvious on the face of the document, by a process of construction without the need for rectification.
iii) A Form IC, if it is in the form of the Barts Form IC or the MFS Form IC as I have described them above, will, if properly completed and signed before the treatment began, meet the statutory requirements without the need for a Form WP or a Form PP.
iv) It follows from this that the court has the same powers to ‘correct’ a Form IC as it would have to ‘correct’ a Form WP or a Form PP.
That, I’m sure came as a relief to the parents involved. I won’t dwell on the nuts and bolts of how the President reached that conclusion, but focus more on the human angle
- The evidence I listened to in these cases was some of the most powerful, the most moving and the most emotionally challenging I have ever heard as a judge. It told of the enormous joy, both for the woman and her partner, to discover, in some cases after a hitherto unsuccessful journey lasting years, that she was pregnant, having taken a pregnancy test that they had scarcely dared to hope might be positive; the immense joy of living through the pregnancy of what both thought of from the outset as “their” child; the intense joy when “their” child was born. In contrast, it told of the devastating emotions – the worry, the confusion, the anger, the misery, the uncertainty, the anguish, sometimes the utter despair – they felt when told that something was wrong about the parental consent forms, that, after all they had been through, all the joy and happiness, W’s partner might not legally be the parent. In one case, where the journey to a successful birth had taken the parents twelve years of what was described as grief and pain, it is hardly surprising to learn that they were “devastated and heartbroken” when told by the clinic that the mother’s partner was not the child’s parent. In another case, the comment was, “it is simply not fair.” The words may be understated, but the raw emotion is apparent. Another called the situation “terrible.” Another spoke of being “extremely distressed”, unable to sleep and “constantly worrying about the future.”
- It is testament to the enormous dignity they displayed, even while the case was going on and they did not know what the outcome was going to be, that these parents, despite their justified criticism of how they felt let down by professional people they had trusted and who they had thought, wrongly as it turned out, they could rely upon, did not give voice to greater anger and more strident criticism. It was, if they will permit me to say so, a humbling experience to watch them and hear them give evidence.
- A number of common themes emerge from the evidence. In each case, having regard to the evidence before me, both written and oral, I find as a fact that:i) The treatment which led to the birth of the child was embarked upon and carried through jointly and with full knowledge by both the woman and her partner.
ii) From the outset of that treatment, it was the intention of both W and her partner that her partner would be a legal parent of the child. Each was aware that this was a matter which, legally, required the signing by each of them of consent forms. Each of them believed that they had signed the relevant forms as legally required and, more generally, had done whatever was needed to ensure that they would both be parents.
iii) From the moment when the pregnancy was confirmed, both W and her partner believed that her partner was the other parent of the child. That remained their belief when the child was born.
iv) W and her partner, believing that they were entitled to, and acting in complete good faith, registered the birth of their child, as they believed the child to be, showing both of them on the birth certificate as the child’s parents, as they believed themselves to be.
v) The first they knew that anything was or might be ‘wrong’ was when they were subsequently written to by the clinic.
vi) The application to the court is wholeheartedly supported by the applicant’s partner or, as the case may be, ex-partner.
vii) They do not see adoption as being a remotely acceptable remedy. The reasons for this will be obvious to anyone familiar with a number of recent authorities which there is no need for me to refer to. As it was put in the witness box by more than one of these parents, as they thought of themselves, why should I be expected to adopt my own child?
- There are two other matters which emerged clearly in the evidence. There is no suggestion that any consent given was not fully informed consent. Nor is there any suggestion of any failure or omission by any of the clinics in relation to the provision of information or counselling.
The President did consider that it was appropriate to name the clinics involved.
I can see no reason at all why the clinics should not be identified. So far as concerns IVF Hammersmith Limited, readers of this judgment will appreciate that the case has not yet been heard and that there are as yet no findings. Barts, MFS and BH, on the other hand, each stands exposed as guilty of serious shortcomings, indeed, at least in the case of Barts and MFS, repeated and systemic failings. Why, in the circumstances, should their shortcomings be shielded from public scrutiny or, indeed, public criticism? I can think of no compelling reason. On the contrary, if public condemnation serves to minimise the risk that any future parent is exposed to what these parents have had to suffer, then it is a price well worth paying. I have not identified any of their staff, nor any of the treating clinicians. There is no need, and it would be unfair, to do so, for the failings are systemic and, ultimately, the responsibility of senior management and the HFEA.
This was not, of course, a public enquiry into the failings of the clinics, or the regulatory body, but the President made some remarks aimed at preventing such problems in the future (though it seems that these 8 cases are likely to be followed by many, many more – at least another 65, that are known to have gone wrong). The President here has thwarted my usual practice of putting the quotes from the judgment in bold, as he emboldens particular words for emphasis…
- An afterword
- It is not for me to provide guidance as to how these serious and systemic failings could better be prevented. That, after all, is the function of the HFEA and, within each clinic, the responsibility of the individual who is the “person responsible” within the meaning of section 17(1) of the 1990 Act. There are, however, three observations which I am driven to make in the light of the very detailed forensic examination to which these matters have been subjected during the hearing.
- The first relates to the material published from time to time by the HFEA in the aftermath of Cobb J’s judgment in AB v CD. I have in mind letters sent out by the Chief Executive of the HFEA dated 10 February 2014 and 1 September 2014, a letter sent out by the Chair of the HFEA dated 3 February 2015 and the April 2015 version of the HFEA’s Consent forms: a guide for clinic staff. While a careful reader who studies these documents with a critical and attentive mind ought not to be left in much doubt about the need to make sure that both Form WP and Form PP are completed properly, and at the right time, I cannot help thinking that it might be better if this FUNDAMENTALLY IMPORTANT requirement, and the potentially DIRE LEGAL CONSEQUENCES of non-compliance, were expressed in more emphatic, indeed stark, language and, in addition, highlighted by appropriate typography. By appropriate typography I mean the use of bold or italic type, CAPITAL letters, or a COMBINATION of all three; the use, for example, of red ink; and the flagging up of key points by the use of ‘warning’ or ‘alert’ symbols. To be fair, some effort has been made to highlight particular points, but I suggest that the process could go further.
- The second relates to the imperative need for all clinics to comply, meticulously and all times, with the HFEA’s guidance and directions, including, in particular, in relation to the use of Form WP and Form PP.
- The final observation relates to practice within clinics. A completed Form WP and a completed Form PP surely needs to be checked by one person (probably a member of the clinical team) and then re-checked by another person, entirely separate from the clinical team, whose sole function is to go through the document in minute detail and to draw attention to even the slightest non-compliance with the requirements – all this, of course, before the treatment starts. I trust that the parties will not be offended by the comparison, but the approach to checking that the Form WP and the Form PP have been fully and properly completed is surely just as important, and demands just as much care, attention and rigour, as would be demanded in the case of a legal document such as a contract for the sale of land, a conveyance or a will – indeed, in the context of parenthood, even more important.