Ten minutes in court that decided one family's destiny
Marie Fleming’s life depended on these next few moments
At about 10.40am, for a few moments, there were glimpses of the pattern of daily life in the Fleming-Curran household. Tom Curran guided his partner’s wheelchair into the old courtroom and turned to her for direction: “Do you want to go right up to them – and look them in the eye?” he asked with a mischievous smile.
Marie Fleming gave a wry smile and indicated just a little farther, parallel to the last of the barristers’ benches, where her partner of 18 years, now her carer, gently peeled off her gloves.
Her life depended on these next few moments. In her last court appearance, she had pleaded: “I’ve come to court today, whilst I still can use my speech, my voice, to ask you to assist me in having a peaceful, dignified death . . . in the arms of Tom and my children.”
Later she would give evidence of the collapsed shoulder that impinges on her lung and breathing function, of the 22 pills she needs to ensure her limbs are pliable and supple for the carers who take 2½ hours to shower and dress her and help her use the toilet. At 6 o’clock, another carer comes back to put her to bed. “Then the day starts all over again the next morning . . .” she said.
Even so, she continues to hang out her brightest colours: her soft, brown hair shining, her lipstick immaculately applied, a delicate scarf setting off the moss-green tones of her coat and toning colours of the rug across her knees.
But the tension was etched into the faces of Corrinna and Simon, two of their children, and their old friend, Brendan Gainey, as they sat into the long bench alongside the couple. While the three High Court judges – wigless, grave, benign – settled themselves on the dais, Tom gently took one of Marie’s powerless hands in his and gripped his daughter’s with the other, while Corrinna’s left hand in turn clutched one of Simon’s.
They remained thus for the 10 minutes or so that it took Mr Justice Kearns to read the four-page summary. His obviously sincere opening words seemed almost an apology for what was to come: “Her courage in adversity is both humbling and inspiring. She was in many ways the most remarkable witness which any member of this court has ever been privileged to encounter.”
But just three paragraphs in, with merciful speed and clarity, he spared them any further suspense by announcing the court’s rejection of the constitutional claim.
Tom Curran nodded slowly in resignation, and turned to look into his partner’s face. Clearly, they had anticipated this. Yet, as the judge continued, referring to the impossibility of ensuring “that the aged, the disabled, the poor, the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, the impulsive, the financially compromised and emotionally vulnerable would not avail of this option in order to avoid a sense of being a burden on their family and society”, Marie Fleming’s head nodded a firm rejection.
When he referred to evidence that certain groups such as disabled neonates and disabled or demented elderly persons are vulnerable to abuse, her head once again nodded in a firm no.
When he said the court was rejecting the constitutional claim, she emitted a barely audible cry of protest and Tom tenderly massaged her hands.
The judgment was not intended to leave them in despair, however.
Corrinna’s eyes filled with tears and Simon reached over to squeeze his father’s hand as the judges sent a clear signal to the DPP, Claire Loftus, regarding her freedom “to exercise her discretion in a humane and sensitive fashion” on whether to initiate a prosecution, “ex post facto the event [of Ms Fleming’s assisted suicide]”.
It all took less than 20 minutes. Corrinna stroked her mother’s hair as their solicitor, Bernadette Parte, spoke reassuring words.
Outside, a chilly rain was falling and the Courts Service, in deference to the plaintiff, broke with tradition and allowed a brief press conference within the building (to the obvious dismay of some Law Library denizens). More than 50 journalists were present, including a team from the French channel, Arte TV.
In a brief statement, Ms Parte said: “Obviously Marie is very disappointed and saddened at today’s outcome and feels it would be inappropriate at the present time to discuss any legal or factual aspects of the case, having regard to the likelihood of an appeal.”