What a boost this January to be treated to a band of women lawyers: we not only have women counsel and judge in the new series of Broadchurch, but the main character in The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest novel, is the female High Court judge, Fiona Maye. We first meet 59 year old Fiona on a Sunday evening in her well appointed flat in Gray’s Inn, where she is honing her judgement on a parental dispute over the education of two Jewish girls. That evening her husband, Jack, tells her he wants to have an affair, to experience passion and intensity again, one last time, while still loving Fiona and wanting nothing in the rest of his life to change. Fiona is devastated, retaliates by changing the locks, and goes to work the next day, trying to push this news to one side in order to manage the responsibilities of her role. These are heavy indeed as she learns that a Wandsworth Hospital wishes to make an application for permission to give a blood transfusion to a boy suffering from leukemia just three months short of his 18th birthday. The boy and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are refusing the transfusion on religious grounds. The doctors say that without the transfusion he is unlikely to recover without permanent damage and may die. After hearing representation from counsel and witness evidence, Fiona decides she wants to hear the boy’s views for herself and goes off to the hospital that evening with the court welfare officer to do so.
In time honoured fashion McEwan is exploring here not only the personal and moral issues of the educated middle classes, but also depicts an area of professional life with all its conflicts and dilemmas: in his novel ‘Saturday’ he focused on brain surgery and here he has turned to the Law. So the legal issues surrounding consent to medical treatment are set out in the plot, but we also learn about past cases Fiona has dealt with in the High Court, such as the application to separate Siamese twins, which would result in the death of one, rather than both twins. We learn of her anger at the judgement of a colleague, misinterpreting evidence and wrongly finding a mother guilty of murder. We learn of the inequity of the criminal law and the shortcomings of police behaviour in their use of the charge of joint enterprise. The particular cases selected ring loud and clear as they resemble real cases recently in the media and we are left in no doubt that the law is at times a blunt and imperfect instrument.
And is it relevant at all that the High Court Judge applying the law here is a woman? At times her understanding and empathy towards women suggests that her gender may inform her professional life, as in her appraisal of the mother in the case of Infant Cot Death Syndrome and her anger towards the colleague who got it wrong. However this is just a suggestion, just as her childlessness is referred to with a light touch. We mostly see Fiona as a diligent, intelligent and hardworking professional, married to the law as much as to her husband and completely comfortable within the somewhat rarified world of Gray’s Inn. However, her decision in the transfusion case has consequences which she can neither anticipate nor control.
McEwan expertly inhabits the skin of a 59 year old woman to narrate this tale, telling us much about the workings of the law and its limitations. Its brevity and succintness belies the questions which it raises, still circulating in my mind.