Man who ruled on heart girl's fate

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IT WAS one of the the most emotional right-to-die cases ever to reach Britain's courts - and the decision rested with Justice Robert Johnson.

As a judge of the High Court's family division for more than 10 years, Sir Robert Johnson, 66, had experience of making quick rulings on seemingly impossible decisions. Indeed, his conclusion regarding the fate of the girl, referred to by the initial "M", is not the first time he has ruled against a patient's wishes.

Three years ago, he ruled that doctors could carry out Caesarean sections on two women against their will because they were not in a fit state to decide. One woman, who had suffered painful side-effects from an earlier Caesarean, had told doctors in Rochdale, Lancashire, that she would "rather die" than go through it again.

Last Friday, after having supper with his wife of 42 years, Linda Bennie, at his home in Kent, Sir Robert received a call from the duty clerk in Newcastle asking him, as duty judge on call, to decide the fate of "M".

He said last night: "I had to act quickly because they couldn't search for a heart, find a heart and then make the application to the court only to find out they couldn't do the operation. Equally, a delay might have meant it was too late for the operation."

Sir Robert was adamant that the girl must be given the chance to make representations to him before he made the order. In the case of his decision regarding the Caesarean sections, the Court of Appeal later held that no such ruling should be made in future unless the women had the chance to make representations to the judge.

However, Sir Robert, who has one son and two daughters, said last night that it was not the judgment by the Court of Appeal in the Caesarean cases which had made him so adamant that the girl's views should be sought. He just thought it was "the right thing to do, nothing more complicated than that", he said. "She is 15 and a half. If you say someone should have a blood transfusion that's a one-off, but with a heart transplant she would be walking around with the heart for life, possibly resenting it."

Since the girl was hundreds of miles away, in Tyne and Wear, Sir Robert could not go to her bedside himself. Instead, he tracked down a circuit judge in Newcastle who recommended Derek Winter, of the Sunderland law firm Mortons.

While Mr Winter went to visit "M", Sir Robert was sitting up into the night, reading a history of Portugal, where he and his wife plan to go on holiday. He reached his decision at 12.45am on Saturday, having spoken to Mr Winter who agreed, as Sir Robert put it, "that `M' felt overwhelmed by her circumstances and the decision she was being asked to make". The search for a new heart began. Miraculously, a match was found in days.

"M" is now recovering in hospital and could be out within two to three weeks. Sir Robert was "very conscious of the great gravity of the decision", he said last night.

He entered the profession via the non-traditional route of Watford Grammar School and the London School of Economics. He was called to the Bar in 1957 and specialised in family law. He was elected chairman of the Bar Council in 1988, where he welcomed the radical shake-up of the legal profession. Unafraid to speak his mind, he caused controversy in 1988 by suggesting frequent offenders should lose their right to jury trial to clear congestion in Crown Courts.

Perhaps his most unfortunate moment was when the 1989 opening of Exeter Crown Court, over which he was presiding, was spoiled by an arrest - of his own son. Robert Johnson junior, then a student, was held by police after taking a photograph of his red-robed father striding into the court, not realising cameras were forbidden.