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Frozen embryos ’ case - judgment from European Court of Human Rights

15 February 2006

A press conference at Willans’ Cheltenham offices heard today that Natallie Evans had lost her three-year battle to use her stored frozen embryos to have a child.

Willans partner James Grigg represents Ms Evans’ former fiancé, Howard Johnston.

Natallie Evans was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous condition in late 2001. She and her then fiancé, Howard Johnson, attended the Bath Assisted Conception Clinic for IVF treatment. Six embryos were created by the couple and placed in storage. Miss Evans was left infertile after subsequent surgery to remove her ovaries.

When, some six months later (May 2002) the couple’s relationship broke down, Mr Johnston withdrew his consent to use the embryos.

The current Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act – which governs IVF treatment – says that consent from both donors is vital at every stage of the process.

Natallie Evans began legal proceedings in 2002 in an attempt to overturn this law. She unsuccessfully took the case through the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords and finally the European Court of Human Rights.

A panel of seven judges in Strasbourg said British courts had not been in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by denying Ms Evans the right to use six frozen embryos. They held unanimously that there had been no violation of Article 2 (right to life) and no violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) concerning the applicant. They also held – by five votes to two – that there had been no violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life).

Speaking on behalf of Howard Johnston, solicitor James Grigg told the packed press conference: “Withdrawing his consent to use the embryos was the hardest and most distressing decision Mr Johnston has had to make in his life. He found himself in a terrible predicament. Had he gone along with Natallie’s wishes, in effect she would have been forcing him to have a child with her against his better judgment.

“It would not have been possible for Mr Johnston to receive assurances that he would have no responsibility for any child that came from the embryos. He would then have had legal, emotional, moral and financial responsibility for this child for the rest of his life. Yet he knew he would not be able to provide the necessary stable family environment because he would not be there.”

James Grigg has acted for Howard Johnston throughout the case. He is a specialist in family law and the partner in charge of the family law department at Willans.

Appeal: Two of the seven judges dissented over Article 8 (respect for private and family life), leaving the way open for an appeal. The five-year rule governing the storage of the embryos means they must be destroyed in October 2006. The court today ordered them to be preserved, pending a decision to appeal.

As always, if you need family legal advice, we’re here to help so please get in touch.

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