• 03 Mar - 09 Mar, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

With all the recent advances in medicine, you would not have thought that there is any such thing as a ‘mystery illness’ any more. At least not in the so-called developed part of the world. But you would be surprised.

Baby Alfie Evans was born about 21 months ago and to everyone, he looked like a typical healthy bouncing baby boy. He was discharged from hospital with his mother three days after his birth and it was smiles all around. But a few months on, his parents found that he was not doing the things a baby of his age would be expected to do, like holding up his head, making cooing sounds or trying to eat his hands. They found he was not lifting his hands at all and occasionally, his hands would twitch and that his eyes would roll over. He liked to sleep a lot. They took him to see their doctor but he dismissed their fears, calling Alfie ‘lazy’. But then he started to get what looked like fits or seizures and still they did not know what was wrong with him. He caught a chest infection from which his recovery was all but ruled out, but to everyone’s surprise and delight, he did recover, although it was only to catch another infection. Since then he has been on a ventilating machine in a hospital. A few days ago, the hospital authorities, while still not being able to diagnose what exactly was wrong with Alfie, said there were no hopes for his recovery and that they intended to turn the switch off. His parents took the matter to court but in spite of their emotional appeal and the fact that they had a lot of public support, they lost their case. The judge ruled that the hospital authorities were right in their recommendation to turn off his life support vent.

His father was distraught. He came out of the court room in tears and said, “I am crying because I know how wrong they are.” He accused the judge of sentencing his son to death and in what could be taken as an act of defiance against the judge; he said no one would send his boy away.

Could his outburst be interpreted as contempt of court? In the UK, nobody would even think that any of this amounted to contempt because the focus of contempt laws here is against defying court orders or acting in violation of them in such a way as to influence the conduct of a case. The emphasis is not on a judge’s personal prestige and therefore, things said against a judge, even personal things, are never seriously considered for contempt. The old British act governing the issue of contempt was thrown out by the European Court of Justice and a new one was therefore made in 1981, where the main emphasis is on violating court orders regarding reporting guidelines.

Last year, with Brexit fever raging – as it still is – Parliament had threatened to initiate the process under Article 50 of the Maastricht Treaty without a vote, on the basis of some archaic powers they claimed coming down from medieval times. This created an uproar – after all, 48 per cent had voted remain in the EU – and some people took the matter to court which ruled that Article 50 could not be triggered without a parliamentary vote. The pro-Brexit vote, furious with the court ruling, went mad. Daily Mail, the next day on its front page lead, carried pictures of the judges involved with the caption ‘Enemies of the people’. They were described as being out of touch, and for having declared a war on democracy. The Daily Telegraph put the heading ‘judges versus the people’. These outpourings were criticised – mainly by anti Brexiters – for their inappropriate use of language, but there was no talk of contempt. In fact, the very pro-Brexit government took one full day before they came out with any criticism of the language used and even then it was mild. About the most serious criticism against the Mail was that ‘it had gone a bit over the top’ and one newspaper, known for its liberal views, even said that the courts had done their job in interpreting the law and the media had done its job in criticising their particular interpretation.

The concept that any functionary of the state, paid by the taxpayer, is sacrosanct and cannot be criticised, would perhaps be anathema to a democratic mindset. A feudal mindset would perhaps see things differently.

Alfie’s father has won the right to take his son’s case to the Court of Appeal and the High Court has ordered the hospital to continue treating Alfie till the matter is decided by the Court of Appeal. All that the medical profession has been able to say about Alfie is that he is suffering from some mitochondrial condition which is tantamount to saying that they think something is wrong with him. By way of explanation, a mitochondrial disease is a disorder caused by dysfunctional mitochondria, which are the organelles that generate energy for the cell.

Perhaps Hamlet had more than just the supernatural in mind when he advised Horatio that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.