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A County Council v M and F 2011

Although judgment was given in this case in 2011, following a finding of fact hearing in the summer of that year, the judgment has only recently been published. I would preface all of this by saying that the case, and this blog will deal with injuries to a young child which resulted in the child’s death, and it is quite likely that some readers might find this blog entry distressing and upsetting.  I don’t want anyone to read this without having that in mind.

I am likely to want to return to this and blog on it in more detail, as the judgment is significant, and very detailed. Mr Justice Mostyn conducted the finding of fact hearing, and the structure and methodology with which the Judge deals with the judgment is exceptional.  It would be worth reading in its entireity

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2011/1804.html

Much like the recent case involving subdural haematomas, which I have already blogged about, this case involved the Court being asked to make a binary choice about whether a child in question was killed by his parents, or whether there was an accidental/organic explanation. It is the most serious type of finding of fact hearing which can ever occur.  The parents have either suffered the tragic loss of a child through organic reasons, or perhaps by an action which they could not have suspected would lead to harm and are safe around other children, or they have killed a child and concealed this and lied about it throughout a family court finding of fact exercise. There is either no risk at all, or a very high risk.

As indicated earlier, I think any reader who has an interest in finding of fact cases should read the entire judgment, as the entire thought processes, the analysis of the medical and other evidence and the law as it relates to each discrete point is mapped out with extreme care and skill by the Judge (notwithstanding that my gut reaction is one of some disquiet)

The child in question suffered injuries and died during attempts to resuscitate him. The parents explanation was that the father, a cyclist, had a small trailer or bike buggy which went behind his bicycle, which the child would sit in, and that whilst riding the bicycle at speed,the child may have suffered injuries as a result of going over bumps in the road, bouncing over tree roots and stones. There obviously questions about whether any of the injuries to the child could have been sustained during the resuscitative process.   (There is substantially more to the parental defence than this, and obviously if I could reduce the complexity of the case down to a page, it would not have taken 20 days of High Court time, nor required 13 bundles of evidence, so I apologise for the fact that this summary is by its nature not thorough)

Here are the injuries identified on the child :-

RECENT INJURIES

Of the Head Neck

1. On the right side of the occiput, there was a scabbed abrasion 1 mm in diameter.

2. On the right forehead, 45mm above the outer angle of the right eyebrow, there was a purple bruise 4mm in diameter.

3. A similar bruise was present approximately 45mm above the outer canthus of the left eyebrow.

4. There were two purple bruises on the outer aspect of the inferior margin of the left orbit measuring 5mm and 4mm.

5. There was scabbing of the posterior margin of the right nostril.

6. There was a recent tear of the frenulum of the upper lip which was associated with a little erythema but no significant haemorrhage.

7. There was a red mark 2mm in diameter posteriorily in the midline of the hard palate.

8. Within the upper helix of the right ear, there was a purple nodule 7mm in diameter which on sectioning showed a little haemorrhage.

9. There was a fluctuant swelling 25 x 20 x 7mm with overlying purple discoloration of the skin within the left upper pinna. Sectioning revealed an organising cystic haematoma containing some liquid blood.

10. There was a well circumscribed area of superficial haemorrhage in the middle lower left lip measuring 3 x 2mm in the midline.

Of the Right Upper Limb

11. There were two purple bruises on the ventral aspect of the lower right forearm just above the wrist measuring 3mm and 5 x 3mm.

12. There were scattered blue bruises up to 7mm over the dorsum of the right hand and over the back of the index, middle and ring fingers of the right hand

13. On the centre of the right palm and the palmar aspects of the index, middle and ring fingers, there were similar blue bruises up to 7mm in diameter.

14. There were scattered abrasions on the back of the index finger 3 x 2mm and overlying the proximal interphalangeal joint of the ring finger measuring up to 2mm.

15. There was a red/purple bruise over the metacarpophalangeal joint of the middle finger of the right hand measuring 10 x 5mm.

Of the Left Upper Limb

16. At the centre of the left palm, there were similar blue bruises up to 7mm in diameter with at the base of the index finger, there was a transverse apparently post-mortem skin split.

17. On the back of the left hand and on the back of the left index, middle and ring fingers, there were similar blue bruises up to 7mm.

18. Over the metacarpophalangeal joint of the middle finger, there were small scabbed abrasions.

19. Over the proximal interphalangeal joint of the ring finger, there was an abrasion up to 2mm in diameter.

20. An abrasion 2mm in diameter was present over the proximal phalanx of the index finger.

21. There was a red mark on the proximal phalanx of the index finger.

22. There were two purple/brown bruises on the medial aspect of the left forearm measuring 12 x 9mm and 13 x 9mm separated by 10mm. The bruises showed yellowing at the edges.

Of the Lower Limbs

23. Over the 5th metatarsal of the left foot on the dorsal aspect, there was a purple bruise 5mm in diameter.

There was a great deal of consideration about the medical evidence. It appears to me that the Judicial conclusion is that speaking from a purely medical perspective, the medics are in agreement that the injuries were non-accidental in nature.

[It is worth noting  Justice Mostyn’s comments about the Guardian’s stance – I believe that similar reservations have recently been expressed by Lord Justice McFarlane, though I am still waiting to read the transcript on that authority.  I could not agree more with what Justice Mostyn says here]

The argument on behalf of the guardian of D and S2

    1. Ms D QC and Ms R represent the litigation guardian of D and S2, Ms S. In her written final submissions Ms D QC wrote:

 

“In this hearing the Children’s Guardian takes a neutral and objective position. It is not her role to argue for or against any of the other parties.

Ms S has had the benefit of hearing most although not all of the evidence throughout the hearing. She has had the benefit of the transcripts of the experts and medical witnesses provided. She was represented throughout. She has had the benefit of reading the documentary evidence filed and she has met with and had discussions with the parties. She has met the children. If the Court makes any findings against M or F the Children’s Guardian will be in a good position to consider and formulate her recommendations to the Court for the welfare of the children.

To that end the Children’s Guardian has considered the oral evidence heard, the written evidence submitted and the expert opinion received in the context of the LA’s Schedule of Findings.”

  1. I was surprised to read that. Given that the outcome of this hearing could have a most far-reaching effect on her clients D and S2 I would have thought that I would be offered at least a steer as to what findings I should make. But no, I was firmly told that this is not the practice, and with my slender experience of this kind of work I am not in a position to argue. That said, approaching the matter with an open mind uncluttered by years of experience of this kind of work I would have thought that at the very least the role of the Guardian and those representing her should be akin to Counsel to a Statutory Inquiry, assisting the court in exploring complex scientific evidence and making suggestions to the court as to what findings should properly and tenably be made. The practice of sitting with an assessor has fallen into disuse (notwithstanding that the procedure for appointing an assessor has recently been reiterated in FPR 2010 r25.14), and thus the role of the representative of the Guardian in a case such as this cannot be overstated.

Having heard all of the evidence, the Judge sets out how he proposes to deal with the decision, and sets out this framework

Conclusions

    1. The business of judging in this case is peculiarly difficult.

 

    1. Yet, if I accept Mr S’s submission that there is little, if any, scope for me to gainsay the histological evidence, which must lead me inexorably to find that in the early hours of the morning these parents, acting together, meted out the most extreme sadistic violence to S which involved thrashing his little hands and punching him in the face with sufficient force to snap his fraenulum.

 

    1. The same point is to be made in relation to the allegations in respect of S when the photograph at Exhibit 7 was taken. Standing alone all the allegations suffer from obvious evidential weaknesses, but when viewed through the prism of the histological evidence they present an altogether different image.
    1. But I do not believe that I should judge the histological evidence in isolation. It is part of a wider canvas. This is a recurrent theme from the authorities. I must weigh it against my assessment of the credibility of M and F and the (im)probability, judged from a non-scientific stance, that this ghastly event actually took place. So as regards the components of the evidence the court is, up to a point, in a chicken and egg situation.
    1. What I therefore propose to do is to make judicial observations on:

 

i) The credibility, character and personality of M and F.

ii) The use of generalised empirical statistical paediatric evidence.

iii) The use of photographic evidence.

iv) The reliability of ageing bruises by visual observation.

v) The reliability of the lay evidence from the neighbours.

vi) The histological evidence.

I shall then stand back and pull all the threads together and make my findings applying the law as I have set it out above.

Respectfully, this appears to me to be an entirely sensible and solid approach, taking into account all of the relevant matters and not taking into account anything that is not relevant.

What really appeared to trouble the Judge was that on the binary version of events, either the medics were right and these parents had inflicted horrific injuries on their child resulting in the child dying, and had concealed it and had faked a 999 call;  or the medics were not right and that the injuries were caused in a way that could not be medically explained but was not a deliberate or violent act.

    1. In judging the truthfulness of the parents as to the events of the night one has to reflect on the implausibility of what the LA seeks to prove. Although the LA did not explicitly challenge all the elements of the parents’ account as set out by me above, it should not be taken as accepting any of it, save where it is incontrovertible. Its case is that for the crucial period only M and F can say what actually happened, and they say that they should not be believed. However, stripped to its core elements the sequence that they posit is this:

 

i) At about 3 a.m. one of the parents inflicted extreme injury to S’s palms by repeatedly thrashing them in some way with some weapon. S was also punched in the face with such force that his fraenulum snapped. This would have caused S to suffer extreme pain, and he would have been screaming very loudly. The other parent, if not participating in this awful act, was present and complicit.

ii) D either heard all this, but never mentioned anything to anybody, or slept through the whole thing, even though her bedroom is next to S’s in a very compact area.

iii) None of the neighbours heard anything in this compact estate.

iv) At 7 a.m., as I have found, S died. Either one or both of the parents smothered him, or, by an extraordinary coincidence, he died a cot death.

v) At 8.50 a.m. M dialled 999 and seemingly in great distress told the emergency operator that her baby was dead in his cot.

  1. Obviously, improbable things do happen, but this sequence of events seems very unlikely. It is against this unlikelihood that I have to judge the truthfulness or falsity of the parents’ denials.

[The one element in this that I find problematic, or potentially problematic, is that of course it is very unlikely that parents would do such a thing, but one has to take into account that it becomes less unlikely when faced with a child who HAS those injuries. As the House of Lords considered in Re H and R and  Re B, it may well be inherently unlikely that a parent would abuse a child and the average parent would not, but the unlikeliness of it reduces if the Court is faced with a child who has been abused. I am as certain as anyone could be, however, that Justice Mostyn gave every facet of the case a great deal of care and attention, and it is likely that it is my reading here that is at fault]

His comments on the injuries to the palms show as much

The injuries to the palms, which are the most serious of all, and which can be regarded as a touchstone, are shrouded in mystery. The surface area of the palm of a seven month old infant is very small indeed. No-one, apart from Professor H has ever seen anything like these bruises. He has only seen them twice in people with bleeding disorders. Although Dr L posited that they might have been inflicted by a ruler or cane he admitted that their appearance did not really fit with that hypothesis. In argument I pressed Mr S to advance a likely mechanism but he just fell back on “repeated application of significant blunt force trauma” and declined to be drawn into specificity. So I am being asked to conclude that the parents inflicted with some mystery weapon, which no-one can visualise, repeated beatings on these tiny palms causing bruising the like of which none of these experts, Professor H aside, has ever seen before.

In summarising the medical evidence :-

    1. This evidence leads the four experts to conclude, as confidently as they can, that, by reference to the telos of this science as set out by me at para 40 above:

i) All of these injuries were caused in life and not after death;

ii) The injuries to the ears and knuckle were caused about 3 days before death; and

iii) The injuries to the palms and fraenulum were caused about 4 – 12 hours before death (most likely around 4 hours).

    1. In judging these powerful conclusions, at this stage without reference to the wider body of evidence I have sought to set out and comment on above, I would make the following general observations:

 

i) This science is forensically untested. The reason that I have not been given any medico-legal papers detailing the results of legal cases where responsibility for injuries has been found based on this science is because there have not been any, apparently anywhere.

ii) The science is based largely on research conducted on animals. There is almost no published scientific research in this field performed on humans, and none at all on babies. While it is said that the cellular and vascular features of all mammals are identical, this is mere assertion. I do not have any scientific evidence that tells me that neutrophil and macrophage migration is the same in mice, sheep, human adults and human infants.

iii) Biological science is not nearly as certain or predictable as the science of physics or the laws of mathematics. As Dr L accepted “we have biological systems and so therefore you cannot automatically assume that every one of us in this room will have exactly the same rate of accumulation of polymorphs at the site of inflammation – it doesn’t work that way, and there are other factors that may influence that”.

iv) Science is always moving on. Scientific certainties of a past age are often proved conclusively wrong by later generations. In an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900 Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest of all scientists, stated that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement” and in a 1902 newspaper interview he predicted that “no balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful.”[5]. Thus the warning of the President in Re U, Re B at para 23(v) that “the judge in care proceedings must never forget that today’s medical certainty may be discarded by the next generation of experts or that scientific research will throw light into corners that are at present dark”.

And the final conclusions – I recommend reading these three or four times, to really let them soak in

My very final conclusions

    1. I conclude:

 

i) Based on my survey of the lay and psychological evidence it is extremely improbable that these parents have ever deliberately inflicted injury on either of these children. It is, however, possible. I do not accept the neighbours’ evidence as to observations of marks or bruises save as to the marks seen by N2 to the backs of S’s hands on the week-end before he died.

ii) However, I believe that injuries to S, were caused by F recklessly taking both children out in the buggy in disregard of plain safety warnings. M would have been complicit in this, up to a point. There was nothing malign in this. It was just stupidity born of an over-enthusiastic and over-energetic immaturity on the part of F, and, up to a point, M. Obviously, it must never happen again, and I do not believe that it ever will.

iii) Based on my survey of the scientific evidence it is extremely improbable that an innocent explanation for S’s injuries is furnished by the eventuation of those things mentioned above. It is, however, possible.

iv) The paediatric evidence from Professor S does not alter my conclusion in (i) above. Nor does the photographic evidence. It is consistent with my conclusion in (ii). The forensic evidence of FS does not alter my primary conclusion. There are perfectly innocent explanations for blood on the sheet, bib and grow-bag. We know that S suffered from nose-bleeds, that he had an erupting tooth, and had bleeding feet.

v) Although the orthodox histological evidence is powerful I am not prepared to rely on it to displace my conclusion in (i) above for the reasons set out by me above. I would venture to suggest that there needs to be consideration within the medico-legal community as to reliance on histological evidence such as this in the forensic process where there is such a dearth of research on humans, and, particularly, babies.

vi) I am not prepared to find that the parents neglected S in relation to his feet. They sought appropriate medical advice for what was certainly a fungal and possibly also a bacterial infection. It is clear to me that there had been a significant postmortem degeneration in S’s feet by the time the photographs of them were taken at the autopsy.

    1. I am therefore left with two improbable explanations namely that S was brutalised and murdered by his parents; alternatively, that he suffered a sequence of pathologically unlikely events that gave rise to his injuries and overwhelmed him. This is a Popi M case. Just as the decision of the House of Lords left no-one knowing why the vessel plunged to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, so we are left here with no explanations for the injuries and death of S, other than those I believe were caused in the bike buggy. This is one of those very rare cases where the burden of proof comes (as Baroness Hale put it) to my rescue and so the parents are entitled to the return of Lord Hoffmann’s value of zero, namely that they will be treated in law as if they did not deliberately inflict violence on and to these children.

 

    1. This is not to say that there is not the possibility, even the real possibility (to use the language of Lord Nicholls in Re H and R when discussing the test under the second limb of s31(2) Children Act 1989), that these parents did indeed so grossly mistreat their children. But a suspicion or a risk is not enough on a fact-finding hearing, as the House of Lords so emphatically confirmed in Re B.

 

  1. I appreciate that the parents, and indeed the LA, want definite answers and I am sorry not to be able to supply them. I am only prepared to find on the 51% balance of probability test, having surveyed all the evidence holistically as the authorities mandate I must do, that I am not satisfied that these parents deliberately abused their children (as opposed to treating them recklessly in the buggy), or neglected or murdered S. Thus far I am prepared to go, but no farther.

That is as close as I think one will ever come to seeing a Judge accept that there are limitations to what even the most exhaustive consideration of the situation, with the assistance of extremely able counsel and experts drawn from a range of disciplines can achieve. This was one of those cases where the Court simply has to say that it is impossible to say what happened – whether the medics are right and a child was effectively violently assaulted and died as a result, or whether there is some other cause for the injuries which exonerates the parents. Being unable to decide, the Judge went back to first principles – the balance of proof falls on the LA, and as they could not prove that the parents HAD deliberately abused their children or neglected or murdered one of them, he had to find that they HAD NOT done so  (the test being binary now – mere suspicion falls away – if it is not proved that a person did X following a finding of fact hearing, then it is proved that a person did NOT do X in the eyes of the law)

Read it again – the Judge is essentially saying that both possible versions – the deliberate harm and the accidental explanation are both highly improbable, but not impossible. He is unable, on that basis, to find that either is more likely than not to have happened, and as a consequence, has to resort to the burden of proof to resolve matters. I can’t ever recall seeing a judgment like this – we bandy around the phrase ‘finely balanced’ all the time (and often use it as a substitute for  ‘arguable’  or ‘with some merit’  or ‘not utterly hopeless’, but this really is the finely balanced case.

As I hope I’ve made plain throughout, whilst this conclusion left me very uneasy, I have nothing but admiration for the careful, logical, structured, considered and exhaustive way in which the Judge tackled this exercise. But it does leave huge question marks for the future of really serious injury cases.  There has been a tendency over recent years (and this may well be right considering how badly we now know that cases like Cannings were approached in terms of accepting medical assertions that have since fallen away) to question the medical opinion; not just as to the confidence of diagnosis and differential diagnosis, but that additional step of ‘what you say is consistent with what you currently believe, but it may not always be the case and in time to come, we may find that this medical opinion as to causation of injuries is wrong’

I don’t know what the answer is here  –  a Court choosing between two (or more) competing medical hypotheses each supported by a medical report is a tough situation and perhaps not the best way for a medical controversy to be resolved  (scientific fact isn’t resolved by cross-examination but by science and testing and Poppers falsifiability principles )  but a Court being driven to speculate about the current boundaries of what science believes to be the case is even more difficult.

A fascinating case, which must have been immensely emotionally draining for all concerned.

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About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

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