Miss B case: A judge confident enough to let her emotions show

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The Independent Online

Elizabeth Butler-Sloss has demonstrated through her sensitive handling of the case of Miss B that judges do not always leave their feelings outside the door of the courtroom.

Dame Elizabeth, the most senior woman judge in England and Wales, acknowledged this when she told Miss B, via a video link to the patient's bed, that the "tangled and conflicting emotions of the case could cloud her judgment." Indeed, she wondered out loud whether she might be "moved by emotion".

A judge of less experience or less confidence in her own ability to separate the law from the highly-charged issues thrown up by such a case might not have been quite so candid.

For nearly 30 years, Dame Elizabeth has adjudicated in some of the most important test cases to consider areas of conflict between the law and social policy.

She has used her judgments to help to promote the rights of children, parents, gays, transsexuals and many others whose rightful claims have been ignored by slowly evolving laws.

Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was appointed president of the Family Division of the High Court, one of the four most senior judicial posts, in June 1999. At the time, this promotion was recognised as a significant achievement for a woman in a profession where few make it to high office.

Dame Elizabeth, 68, first came to public attention when she was universally praised for her stewardship of the Cleveland child-abuse inquiry in 1987 and 1988.

The Children Act 1989 implemented her recommendations and was aimed at ensuring that children could not be summarily removed from parents to "places of safety". Children, she has said, should not be removed from homes unless absolutely necessary, and are "entitled to respect and consideration".

She has also presided over a number of very difficult family cases in which human emotions are often on trial. Her rulings have included overriding the wishes of parents when their 15-year-old daughter, already a mother, sought an abortion.

Four years ago she issued landmark guidelines in a case in which a woman was forced to have a Caesarean delivery against her wishes, saying that courts would no longer approve such surgery without a patient's consent.

Last year she ruled that the killers of James Bulger should be granted lifelong anonymity after their release from detention.

Dame Elizabeth's career is nearing its end, as the grandmother and mother of three is expected to step down before she reaches her compulsory retirement age in seven years' time.

The case of Miss B will not be her last, nor will she consider it her most testing, but many will remember it as the one in which a senior judge was prepared to show a human face.