This is a County Court decision on a finding of fact hearing, involving a child of two Brazilian parents who sustained a rib fracture.
Because I am childish, I like to think that the Judge specifically named the case Re O because of the Brazilian connection…
Re O (Minors) 2014
The case threw up a number of important issues. The parents defence had been that they had not done anything and that there had been a Vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets, leading to weak bones. A substantial amount of expert evidence was called on this, and eventually it went nowhere.
The mother, who had been caring for the child L, during the relevant period, is someone who has epilepsy. She gave evidence about whether she had had a fit on that day
As to her epilepsy the mother said that she had five such fits during her pregnancy with F and two during her pregnancy with L. She could recall no fits between F’s birth and her pregnancy with L. Although she does not remember having such fits she usually begins to feel unwell shortly beforehand. Following a fit she feels drowsy, unwell and everything seems muddled. She did not recall any such symptoms occurring on 7th April 2013.
With that in mind, you may be surprised that the finding of His Honour Judge Bond was that the injury was caused during an epileptic seizure. I think, to be fair, that everyone else was surprised as well, and this emerged as a result of some expert evidence from a Dr Hillier
121 Attempts had been made before and during the hearing to secure the attendance of Dr. Hillier. He is a Consultant in Neurology. Unfortunately he did not give evidence until after the parents. He was the last witness to give evidence.
122. The mother’s G.P. had first referred her to Dr. Hillier in 2009. He has written a short report dated 30th September 2013 (C2199) about the mother’s possible epilepsy. He last saw the mother in November 2012. Dr Hillier found it difficult to make a clear diagnosis but thought that the mother suffered from faints which look like seizures, but perhaps has a tendency to fainting and to suffering seizures.
123. In his oral evidence Dr. Hillier went further and took everybody by surprise. He distinguished between what he described as partial epileptic fits and full epileptic fits. In his opinion it was possible that the mother could have had a partial fit, during which she injured L, but remembered nothing of it. Further he thought it possible that the mother would experience no symptoms, before or after a partial fit, that would lead her to remember that she had suffered such a fit.
124. The doctor described situations where a patient had attended his clinic and reported that he had suffered no fits since the last appointment. Not infrequently, the patient’s partner reported that he/she had observed occasions when the patient was “spaced out”, having had some form of partial fit, but which the patient could not remember.
125. It was because of this evidence that the local authority reconsidered its position and no longer sought any public law orders.
The very vivid illustration given by Dr Hillier was that he had once had a patient who had been peeling an orange, had had a partial fit, and continued peeling the orange afterwards, and that for this patient there had been no gap at all in the sequence of events, she had simply peeled an orange and nothing of any significance had occurred at all.
The suggestion therefore was that mother could have had a partial fit, injured the child completely accidentally during it and been utterly unaware of it.
The Local Authority, in the light of that evidence, threw the towel in (save for shutting the door on all of the Vitamin D debate in relation to this case)
That suggestion that a parent could injure their child during a partial fit and have NO RECOLLECTION of it at all is startling, but Dr Hillier’s evidence was clearly compelling.
The Judge had to consider whether this was capable of meeting the section 31 threshold in any event (for example was there some negligence or fault or flaw in the mother handling a child when she was prone to fits?)
In paragraph 8 of his written submissions, Mr Hand [counsel for the LA] deals with the question of whether the threshold criteria are satisfied. He referred to the case of Re D (Care Order: Evidence)  1 FLR 447 per Hughes LJ that the test under Section 31(2) of the Children Act is an objective one. As the Lord Justice said in that case:
“It is abundantly clear that a parent may unhappily fail to provide reasonable care even though he is doing his incompetent best.”
145. Mr Hand submits, and I agree, that on the facts of this case, if the court finds L’s injuries were caused by the mother during a partial fit, the threshold criteria are not met by reason of the fractures that L suffered. Mr Hand said that, had the Local Authority been aware, at the outset, of Dr Hillier’s evidence, they would not have instituted proceedings under Section 31.
[i.e so far as the LA were concerned, although it was theoretically possible for the Court to find that the s31 threshold was crossed by the child being injured whilst being held by mother who had a partial fit that she had no recollection of, they were not going to invite the Court to do so]
The next interesting point to arise is that clearly once the LA accepted the partial fit theory, and the mother and father accepted it, was it a done deal? In this case, those representing the Guardian felt uncomfortable about that.
168. Mr Tolson QC [counsel for the Guardian] submits, and I agree, that the medical evidence did not alter during the course of the hearing. The three jointly instructed experts agreed substantially, as did Dr Allgrove. The thrust of the evidence was that non-accidental injury is the only explanation, save in wholly exceptional medical circumstances which it is submitted do not exist in this case. It is submitted that the parents’ evidence was not credible and in this case the matter goes further than simply being unable to offer an explanation. It is submitted on behalf of the guardian that the omission of any recall prior to the observation of the lump is particularly striking given the obvious thoroughness with which the parent’s statements have been prepared in other respects. Further submits Mr Tolson QC it is clear that the parents were tired and under some stress on Sunday 7th April 2013.
169. In his oral submissions Mr Tolson QC accepted that he was now the only advocate who contended for a finding of non-accidental injury. Following Dr Hillier’s evidence, Mr Tolson QC had been able to take brief instructions about the Local Authority’s change of position. The guardian maintained her position, as I have just described.
170. Mr Tolson QC dealt with the point raised by Charles J in Lancashire CC v D & E, in respect of the guardian’s position in a case such as this. In the particular circumstances of this case, and particularly since the Local Authority’s change of position, the guardian felt it important that the court should have before it, on behalf of the children, arguments which supported a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury.
171. It is the case that the role of the guardian’s advocate in a fact-finding exercise is to be fully involved in testing, in particular the expert evidence. Generally I would expect the guardian to help the court by making submissions which alert the court to the important matters, but to remain neutral as to the court’s findings. In the unusual circumstances of this case, it was helpful for the guardian to maintain the position that she did, although I regard it as an exceptional course.
The Court therefore permitted the Guardian’s advocate to ‘test the evidence’ and to make submissions that the partial fit explanation might not be the correct answer in this case. (It would perhaps have been interesting to see if the Court would have taken a different view had the key piece of evidence, Dr Hillier, not been the very last witness in the case)
Here is what the Guardian (through leading counsel) had to say about the partial fit theory
172. As to the question of the burden of proof, and given that the Local Authority no longer pursued a finding of inflicted non-accidental injury, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that the court must still, in the circumstances of this case, consider whether such a case has been proved on the balance of probabilities.
173. As to the question of the mother’s epilepsy, Mr Tolson QC pointed out that there was no evidence that the mother had had a fit on the day in question. Further, there was no evidence that the mother had ever had a partial fit of a kind which Dr Hillier thought might have been possible. Mr Tolson QC did not accept that Dr Hillier’s evidence necessarily meant that during a partial fit the mother would drop L and not remember such an event. He submitted that a partial fit would not fill the gap to explain the vagaries of the mother’s evidence, in respect of what happened between about 13.00 and 18.00 on 7th April 2013. It is accepted, on behalf of the guardian, that if the mother had had a full epileptic seizure she might not recall dropping L.
174. Mr Tolson QC submitted that an epileptic fit does not explain L’s rib injuries. For example if L had been dropped that would not involve a squeezing mechanism, which is generally thought to be the cause of a type of rib fracture that L had suffered. Further, said Mr Tolson QC, one such fit would not explain the presence of the bruises.
The Judge said that before having heard from Dr Hillier, he had reached the tentative conclusion that he was satisfied that the injuries had occurred but was not satisfied that they had been deliberately caused by either of the parent, their overall presentation and absence of any other troubling issues weighing significantly in these deliberations.
The applications for Care Orders were dismissed and the children returned home. [It is worth noting that the Judge indicated that even before Dr Hillier's evidence, he had been of the view that he should not make a finding of fact that either of the parents had deliberately harmed the child]
The Judge had this to say about epilepsy
184. The question of epilepsy and its possible implications in cases such as this has been explored. There is clearly much to learn.