The Court of Protection has ruled that a 64-year-old woman who disappeared for months after she ran away with a neighbour and subsequently suffered a massive stroke should not be reunited with her family despite their fervent wish to see her again.
The extraordinary case, which the judge described as “very tragic and distressing”, forced the court to grapple with the thorny question of whether the woman – who cannot be named for legal reasons – genuinely stated that she wanted nothing to do with certain family members before she became gravely ill.
Judge Martin Cardinal, a specialist in mental health issues, said the case had given him “a great deal of anxious thought” and centred on “a typical extended working class London family where everyone lived close to each other and were in and out of each other’s homes a great deal.”
In June 2008 the family was torn apart when the woman left her husband of 45 years and ran off with a neighbour to the West Midlands without leaving any note or explanation. The family spent months trying to track her down. They finally found her and discovered that she was in a nursing home after suffering a cerebral aneurism that had left her incapacitated and needing 24-hour care.
However when the family tried to visit her in the home they were escorted off the premises by police because the home insisted they had been told the woman made it clear she wanted to break off contact with family members before she fell ill. With the woman now unable to express a clear wish, it was left up to the Court of Protection – which deals with people who have lost capacity to make vital decisions – to decide whether it would be in her best interests for family contact to resume.
During a two day trial the judge heard from tearful family members – including two daughters and the woman’s husband - who described how her departure had left them devastated and perplexed. They were convinced that a “letter of wishes” and a will which the woman wrote were in fact written by her new lover. An American forensic expert who specialises in using computer analyses to deduce the authorship of written pieces of work testified that he was “99.99 per cent” certain that the letter of wishes was written by the woman’s lover.
However the judge ruled that, even if the authorship of the letter of wishes was disputed, there was compelling evidence to show that the woman had not been coerced and had in fact made clear that she no longer wanted any contact with her family other than her brother. During the trial it also emerged that the woman had gone to the police after leaving London to complain that she had been the victim of physical and emotional abuse from her husband and many other family members. The family denied these accusations in court.
The woman’s new lover, the judge said, had also visited the woman in the home every day since the stroke, even though the likelihood of her recovering was slim. He was neither “a dominating or bullying man” and “plainly had no financial motive in running away” with the woman because she had no assets.
Judge Cardinal said he had sympathy with the family and added that he did not believe they posed any physical threat to the woman now. But the court nonetheless had to respect the woman’s decision – taken at a time when she was capacitous – to run away from her family without giving an explanation.
“The actions may be unkind, ungrateful and even mean spirited,” he said in his judgement. “These actions may be inexplicable. But they were an adult’s decisions. However justified or unjustified, and not lacking in logical thinking.”
The family, he added, would be kept informed of the woman’s medical condition but he ruled against restoring contact, even on a temporary trial basis.
“Not without very careful thought I take the view that I cannot direct that contact be immediately restored to husband or family and particularly [the woman’s eldest daughter]…terribly sad though that be,” he concluded. “It appears that [she] took the decision that her future was with [her lover] and she wished a break with the past. Accordingly I declare at present it is in the best interests of [the woman] not to see her family. I say this with great regret and I hope not without sympathy for the family from whom she was estranged but this is not the time to experiment with contact. Unless things change, her wishes must be respected and the position remains as it is.”