.Zulu boy's emotional appeal

Sifiso Mahlangu, the 10-year-old Zulu boy at the centre of this week's Analysis, has now flown back to South Africa to be re-united with his natural parents. But his tug-of-love case, which seems without precedent in Family Division circles, taxed the minds and emotions of some of the UK's leading lawyers and judges.

Mahlangu was brought to the UK by Salome Stopford, who employed the boy's mother Selina as a housekeeper and nanny. Stopford, a white UK woman with an Afrikaans background, sought to adopt Mahlangu before bringing him to London to be educated at a top school in the UK.

However, at the Court of Appeal in March, Lords Justice Neill and Ward ruled that he should be returned to his parents in Leboa immediately.

That ruling followed a High Court decision that the boy should go back to Africa next year after Selina Mahlangu had cross-appealed for his return. Stopford had appealed against such a move.

On 1 May, after unsuccessful moves to take the case on to the House of Lords – an application for leave to challenge the appeal ruling had been rejected by Lords Keith, Mustill and Hoffman a week earlier – Lords Justices Neill and Ward had the final say. They again held that the boy should be immediately returned to his natural parents in South Africa.

For family law expert Elizabeth Vernon, of Mishcon De Reya's family department, the decision ended frantic activity in court and behind the scenes to keep Mahlangu in the UK with Stopford.

Vernon took the case, initially on a pro bono basis, at the 11th hour. Stopford was represented to Appeal Court level by Bindmans, but Mishcons, which instructed family law expert Allan Levy QC, was called in to take the case to the House of Lords.

"It was one of those cases where you had no alternative but to drop everything," said Vernon. "In emotion-charged cases like this it is in everyone's interest that a final conclusion is reached as quickly as possible. Things really did have to be done at break-neck speed. There is no other choice."

She said that taking the case over at such a late stage presented difficulties because of the huge quantity of material built up during the earlier hearings. However, while that meant long hours of reading, it also cut out much of the spade work that would have been required had the case been started from scratch.

"From that point of view the previous material, coupled with the Court of Appeal judgment, did simplify the task of getting your head round the legal argument," said Vernon.

Details of the stance taken on the application before the Law Lords have not been made public. But Vernon revealed the application was made on the basis that the Court of Appeal had: failed to give sufficient weight to the wishes of the child and the views of the official solicitor; attached too much weight to previous authority over the wishes of natural parents; and failed to give sufficient weight to the position of the psychological parent (the white 'foster mother'). It was also argued that the appeal ruling was counter to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As an extra battle, Vernon said the funding situation also had to be tackled. While the case was first taken on a pro bono basis, she felt legal aid should be available. Eventually the Legal Aid Board agreed but Vernon said the uphill struggle to obtain it was one they could well have done without.