Month: November 2014

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

This is quite a short book – I read it in one evening. But it is the sort of book that stays with you.

It’s about Fiona, a High Court (Family Division) judge. Her husband of many years decides he wants to have an affair with a much younger woman – and wants her permission for it – and the same evening, an urgent case is dropped on her. A young man, three months short of his 18th birthday, has leukaemia and is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A person under 18 can consent to medical treatment if they understand the implications (Gillick competence), but their refusal can be overridden in their best interests by a court order.

Despite appearances, this book is not about the nitty-gritty of choice, self-determination, and so on. There is no in-depth treatment of the moral and ethical implications of parents refusing consent to life-saving treatment for their children for religious reasons, or even about whether it is ethical to deny the right to choose to a young person who is only three months short of his 18th birthday. The book is, instead, about the way Fiona deals with the case and its aftermath, and the consequences of her choices and actions.

This is one of those books where you have no real doubt how it’s going to end – the interest is in how that endpoint is reached, and the journey you make in getting there.

Right from the start, I liked Fiona. I cared about her, I wanted her to be happy, and I respected her dedication to the law and her duties as a high court judge. But McEwan also wrote – very well – an adult’s dismissal of a child’s (or young person’s) feelings. Oh, they’ll grow out of it. But, as many parents find – too late – young people’s troubles may seem minor to an adult with a wider worldview and greater experience, but they’re pretty shattering to the young person concerned. How many adults have failed to take a child’s problems seriously until too late?

Fiona, of course, doesn’t make all the right choices – it wouldn’t be a very good story if she did. But even as we, the readers, can see the road she is travelling along and where it is likely leading, we know that Fiona can’t. She makes the choices that seem right and good at the time, and it’s only later that she realises where and how and why it went wrong.

In the end, I suppose the book is about responsibility: when you rearrange someone else’s life for them (particularly without their consent), you had better have a care for the consequences – which may be more far-reaching and unpredictable than you expect.

This book will join the very select list of my favourites.

If you want to know which legislation and cases are mentioned in the book, I’ve added the book to my list of Law in Literature examples here.


Will-writing: let your imagination run riot

Yesterday I drafted my first Will.

It was for a single mother with one primary-school-age daughter, life assurance, and not much else. Pretty simple, you would think?

Hah. Most certainly not.

Drafting a Will is a time when the drafter can push his or her imagination to the limits of the bizarre, morbid, or just plain strange.

What if my client got run over by a bus five minutes after signing the will – and then her daughter got struck by lightning and died all black and crispy a week later?

The answer to that is that unless you put in a clause about 28-day survival, the Horrible Ex (the daughter’s father) gets a windfall because the money goes to the daughter, then to the daughter’s father – as the daughter, being under 18, would be intestate.

What if the daughter manages to survive vindictive meteorology, but falls over a cliff at the age of 17 and is smashed to pieces on the rocks, many feet below?

Well, if we left the money to the daughter, the Horrible Ex still gets the cash!

So we have to set up a trust to make sure the daughter doesn’t become absolutely entitled to the money until she hits 18 and is able to make a Will of her own. So when she dies, smashed to pieces on the rocks at the age of 17, the money goes to someone else (not the daughter’s father).

OK, but what if before falling over a cliff the daughter had been made pregnant by her boyfriend and given birth to a child of her own?

If the daughter had to get to 18 in order to become absolutely entitled to the money, then the daughter’s child is then disinherited because the money goes to the alternate beneficiary…

So you have to put in something that says that if the daughter gives birth, then she becomes absolutely entitled.

And what about if the Client herself, on the way home from signing her Will, goes for a wild party, gets drunk, has mad passionate sex with a complete stranger, gets pregnant, but then is hit by quite a small meteorite before she discovers she’s pregnant? She doesn’t die instantly, but ends up in a persistent vegetative state – and the baby is eventually born nine months later, upon which the Client dies.

So there has to be provision for more children to be born without being disinherited…

I’ve read of Lois McMaster Bujold asking herself “What’s the worst thing I can do to this character?” Will-writing appears to be an exercise in “What’s the worst thing I can do to this client?”

And you know the best thing of all? If you’re writing a novel, you have to pick one worst thing to do to your main character. When you’re writing a Will, you can do them all!

A Shotgun is better than a Man because…

  1. You can have more than one shotgun at a time and nobody thinks that’s scandalous.
  2. When you are thinking of buying a shotgun, you can try it out before you commit.
  3. When you want to get rid of a shotgun, you can sell it.
  4. When travelling in a car, your shotgun never insists on driving.
  5. When travelling in a car, you lock your shotgun in the boot. It doesn’t sit in the passenger seat making comments about your driving style.
  6. Your shotgun is always hard.
  7. You can use your shotgun in the open air even when there are other people around.
  8. You can lend your shotgun to a friend and no-one thinks that’s kinky.
  9. You and a group of friends can all take your shotguns out and use them together, and that’s regarded as perfectly normal.
  10. You can reload a shotgun in seconds.
  11. When you’ve finished with your shotgun for the moment, you just clean it and put it away until you need it again.
  12. When you’re not using your shotgun, you can lock it in a cabinet.
  13. If you buy a new shotgun, your old shotgun doesn’t get jealous.
  14. If you get rid of your old shotgun, it never stalks you or makes nasty comments about your shooting ability to your friends.
  15. With a shotgun, you can keep banging for as long as you have ammunition.
  16. If you travel on public transport with your shotgun, you don’t have to buy an extra ticket.
  17. You can have different shotguns for different purposes.