Courts rise to the challenge

Although the legal system is frequently criticised for its slowness, when the necessity arises the courts do have a quick response mechanism.

This has been illustrated recently by the unusual case in the High Court Family Division of an expectant mother whose chronic terror of needles stood in the way of her receiving potentially life saving treatment for both her and her unborn child.

After the development of complications during labour, doctors decided that, in the interests of the health of both the mother and the baby, the woman should undergo a caesarean section.

But because of what Mr Justice Kirkwood later described as her "extreme needle phobia", the mother was unwilling to have a drip needle inserted to enable the operation to proceed. The doctors were unwilling to insert one against her will without the consent of the courts.

At just after 6pm on 5 December last year, Mr Justice Kirkwood was asked for the legal go-ahead for doctors to insert the drip needle in to the woman.

The application was made by Robert Francis QC, instructed by Le Brasseur J Tickle for the NHS health trust concerned. The woman was represented by Michael Hinchliffe, senior medical and family lawyer at the Official Solicitor's office, who had been bleeped to attend court as he walked along Holborn on his way to catch the Tube home.

The result of the high speed activity between medicine and the law was that just over 20 minutes after the hearing began, the judge felt sufficiently informed to be able to make the order entitling doctors to go ahead with the treatment in spite of the woman's fear of needles.

The decision was made in a case which, although treading similar ground to past cases involving administration of treatment to patients against their will, nevertheless involved consideration of its own facts within the framework of established law.

The judge said that, because of the urgency of the case, the decision had been made without prior preparation of court documentation.

He decided that although the woman at the centre of the action was capable of understanding the necessity of the treatment, her fear of needles should be regarded in the eyes of the law as a psychological affliction rendering her incapable of properly weighing up the information given her about the treatment. It was in those circumstances that he gave doctors the go-ahead to treat her.

Hinchliffe and Le Brasseur partner Rena Field agree that the case is a classic example of the speed with which the courts can move when necessary and the way in which lawyers can, with co-operation on both sides, achieve the necessary results in the absence of conventional paperwork.

"Despite the urgency of the matter, getting the case dealt with by a judge did not create any serious difficulties for us," says Field. "As a firm we are used to dealing with health trusts and practitioners on these sort of issues.

"In practical terms, a lot depends on co-operation from the Official Solicitor and the court, and that was unquestionably given.

"Our client was put in an extremely difficult position while doing their best for their patient. This application was made after detailed consideration of the facts and all the alternatives."