Family judges have many sad duties to perform but few can be more so than making declarations that missing people are presumed dead. In one tragic example, such a declaration was granted in the case of a beloved son who disappeared without trace from a psychiatric unit in 2005.
The man was aged 41 when he was last seen in a seaside town. A poster campaign and a great deal of media publicity followed his disappearance, but a two-day search by the police and coastguard proved fruitless. His family’s staunch belief that he was still alive had gradually waned over the years and his father applied to the High Court for a declaration under the Presumption of Death Act 2013.
In granting the relief sought, the Court noted that the man had a history of clinical depression and was known to have contemplated, if not attempted, suicide at least five times. He took no clothes with him and left behind his wallet, passport, bank cards, mobile phone and even his spectacles.
Amidst winter conditions, he would not have been able to get far on foot and the Court noted that if he had simply wandered about, then collapsed and died from exposure, his body would probably have been found. The obvious possibility, although not the only one, was that his body was washed out to sea. The Court found that it was more likely than not that he had died on the same day as his disappearance.
In expressing sympathy for the family and hope that the declaration would assist them in moving on with their lives, the Court noted that it could not have been easy for the father, hoping against hope that his long lost child would one day be found alive and safe, to in effect ask the Court to snuff out that hope.