Monday, May 24, 2010

A Life Lost In Legal Limbo

Most of us probably thought that proper recognition for the loss of an unborn child as a result of injuries caused by another had already been achieved with the passage of the legislation known as “Byron’s Law”. The law is named after an unborn child who died when his mother was the victim of a violent road rage attack almost ten years ago. The inquiry which resulted in the creation of Byron’s Law found that putting such cases into the category of manslaughter or murder would not be appropriate or practical, and so Byron’s Law specifically extends the law relating to grievous bodily harm to include the death of an unborn foetus, and provides for a maximum penalty of 25 years prison if the harm is intentional.

Today, the case of another unborn child has prompted renewed debate about whether or not Byron’s Law is an adequate reflection of the severity of the tragedy. Baby Zoe died as a result of her mother Brodie Donegan being run over by a van driven by a woman alleged to have been under the influence of drugs. Brodie and her fiancĂ© Nick Ball are reported to be unhappy that the driver cannot be charged with murder or manslaughter, and feel that a charge of grievous bodily harm does not recognize the depth of their loss. Under the law in New South Wales, when the harm is not intentional, the maximum available penalty is seven years in gaol.

In another unrelated case, an elderly driver has pleaded guilty to a charge of negligent driving causing death following an accident where an entire family of five people was killed. 68 year old Ronald Jaray was overtaking a series of cars when he accidentally clipped one of them, causing it to spin across the road into the path of a truck. He has been given a suspended sentence of twelve months, along with a suspension of his driving licence. Despite being responsible for the deaths of five people in the one family, he has escaped imprisonment. Fair or not, this is because the law recognizes the difference between causing harm deliberately and accidentally.

The Baby Zoe case is yet to be heard in court, but it seems to me that what is important is not so much the nature of the charge, or even the scale of the possible penalty. It is the idea that an unborn baby is in some way not real that is so deeply hurtful for someone who has suffered such a loss. It is the need for some form of recognition that a life was lost, even if that life had not yet officially begun. Surely it is not too much to ask that the law should offer that recognition in a way that validates the grief and suffering involved, and removes this legal limbo.

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