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Drinking during pregnancy

 

There was quite a lot of media attention about the Court of Appeal’s decision in

 

RE CP and Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1554.html

 

and quite a bit of that media attention missed the point really.  [Which is fair enough, because the point was obscure and technical, and a far better story for selling newspapers is whether we are going to send mothers to prison for having a glass of wine during pregnancy]

 

The case was not about whether mothers should be prosecuted for drinking whilst pregnant, but whether technically they COULD be, which would allow for children who suffered damage (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome) to receive compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.

 

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority was set up by Government to make payments to people who are the innocent victims of crime.

 

“from people who have been physically or mentally injured because they were the innocent victim of a violent crime…”.

 

A person does not have to show that the perpetrator of that crime was later convicted of the offence, it is sufficient to show that (a)there was a violent crime and (b) they were physically or mentally injured.

 

The case was also not about whether or not it is a bad thing for mothers to drink during pregnancy. The Court did not hear arguments about whether consumption of alcohol causes harm to foetuses and whether that harm continues after the baby is born; that was a point that was accepted by all of the parties.

 

 

 

For a while, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) were paying some claims on behalf of children who had Foetal Alcohol Syndrome due to their mother drinking during pregnancy, but then stopped.

 

CB’s case was brought as a test case for around 80 similar cases where children were possibly going to receive compensation if the Court of Appeal found that the consumption of alcohol in pregnancy was capable of being a crime.

 

If it isn’t capable of being a crime, no CICA compensation.

 

So, firstly, what crime are we talking about?

 

s23 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. This provides:

 

“Maliciously administering poison, etc so as to endanger life or inflict grievous bodily harm.

Whosoever shall unlawfully administer to… any other person, any poison or destructive or noxious thing, so as thereby…to inflict upon such person any grievous bodily harm, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted there of shall be liable…to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding ten years”

 

 

As with any criminal offence, there are a lot of ingredients – unlawful administration, of something, to any other person that something being noxious, and the administration causing grievous bodily harm to that person

 

We could make this very complicated, but I’ll try instead to make it very simple.

 

If a mother takes her six year old child, and makes him drink a bottle of gin and he suffers as a result, liver damage or kidney failure, or even if he is just hospitalised, the offence under s23 is made out. The alcohol is a noxious thing, the administering is unlawful and grievous bodily harm was suffered.

 

But with a child in the womb, it was uncertain whether the offence under s23 was capable of being committed.

 

And that is a result of this bit in the statute “any other person”   – at the time the noxious thing was administered, was the victim a person?

 

 

That gets us into huge theological and pro-choice v pro-life debate; some people will feel very strongly that a foetus is a person, some will feel very strongly that until birth the foetus is not a person, some might feel that it depends on the age of the foetus, still others will feel that it depends if the foetus has reached a stage where it would be capable of being born alive.

 

But we can cut through all of that (fascinating and controversial as it is), because the Courts have given decisions on the legal position before.

 

And as the decision was from the House of Lords, it is powerful authority

 

  1. In Attorney General’s Reference (No 3 of 1994) [1998] A.C. 245, the House of Lords considered the case of a defendant who stabbed a woman in the stomach, knowing her to be pregnant. Shortly afterwards she went into labour and gave birth to a grossly premature child, which survived for only 121 days. The stabbing set in train events which caused the premature birth, which itself led to the child’s death, its chances of survival being very significantly reduced by the fact of the premature birth. Thus, a chain of causation between the stabbing and the death of the child was established. The issue was whether in those circumstances the crimes of murder or manslaughter could be committed.

 

  1. Their Lordships held that a foetus was an unique organism and at that stage was neither a distinct person nor an adjunct of the mother. It was held that whilst there could not be a conviction for murder, there was sufficient for a conviction for manslaughter. The defendant in stabbing, had intended to commit an act which was unlawful and which any reasonable person would recognise as creating a risk of harm to some other person. Although a foetus was not a living person, the possibility of a dangerous act directed at a pregnant woman causing harm to a child to whom she subsequently gave birth, made it permissible to regard that child as within the scope of the defendant’s mens rea for the purposes of manslaughter when committing the unlawful act. Accordingly the crime of manslaughter could be committed even though the child was neither the intended victim nor could it have been foreseen as likely to suffer harm after being born alive. Thus the trial Judge should not have held that there was no case to answer on manslaughter on the basis that at the material time there was no victim capable of dying as a direct and immediate result of what was done.

 

  1. At paragraph 15 of its decision, the Upper Tribunal referred to the fact that Lord Mustill had identified a number of established rules relating to criminal liability. It continued;

 

 

“One of these was that in the absence of a specific statutory provision, an embryo or foetus in utero does not have a human personality and cannot be the victim of a crime of violence.

Although the foetus is a unique organism it does not have the attributes that make it a person. As Lord Mustill said (at 262D, my emphasis): “The defendant intended to commit and did commit an immediate crime of violence to the mother. He committed no relevant violence to the foetus, which was not a person… “.”

 

 

The “rules” set down by the House of Lords included these:-

 

“3. Except under statute an embryo or foetus in utero can not be the victim of a crime of violence. In particular, violence to the foetus which causes its death in utero is not a murder.

….

  1. The existence of an interval of time between the doing of an act by a defendant with the necessary wrongful intent and its impact on the victim in a manner which leads to death does not in itself prevent the intent, the act and the death from together amounting to murder, so long as there is an unbroken causal connection between the act and the death. …
  2. Violence towards a foetus which results in harm suffered after the baby has been born alive can give rise to criminal responsibility even if the harm would not have been criminal (apart from statute) if it had been suffered in utero.”

 

 

 

So, the CICA were arguing broadly that as the foetus was not a person at the time the mother was administering the noxious substance (alcohol), there was no s23 offence.

 

And those representing CB were arguing broadly that IF there was consumption of alcohol in the womb, but the consequences of the harm were suffered after the baby was born, the s23 offence is capable of being made out.

 

 

[The CICA placing weight on rule 3 above, and CB placing weight on rules 4 and 5 above]

 

 

  1. If the foetus is not another person at the time of the administration of the noxious substance then the offence cannot be complete at that point. The situation is distinct from the crime of manslaughter which requires death in order to complete the crime. This, no doubt, is why Mr Foy albeit with some hesitation, sought to rely on the first limb of his argument as it would avoid this difficulty which arises under the second limb. He sought to meet the objection to the second limb by arguing that where FASD occurs, the foetus is damaged before birth, but that after birth there is continuing damage by reason of retardation. To the observation that what occurred after birth was simply the consequences of damage caused before birth, he submitted that these are continuing and that the court should be slow to distinguish between damage done and subsequent consequences or symptoms.

 

  1. I cannot accept this analysis. The reality is that the harm has been done to the child whilst it is in utero. The fact that if the child is born alive it will suffer the consequences of the insult to it whilst in the womb does not mean that after birth it has sustained damage by reason of the administration of the noxious substance. One only has to cast one’s mind back to the Thalidomide tragedy. The injury was done to the affected children by the administration of the drug whilst they were still in the womb. Those children who were born affected were born with missing or ill-developed limbs. Whilst they suffered the consequences on a lifetime basis after birth, they did not sustain any additional damage after birth by virtue of administration of the drug.

 

  1. Reference to the expert evidence of Dr Kathryn Ward, an experienced consultant paediatrician, whose very detailed report was before the First Tier Tribunal, (and which was not disputed), shows that the harm which is done by ingestion of excessive alcohol in pregnancy is done whilst the child is in the womb. The child would then, when born, show damage demonstrated by growth deficiency, physical anomalies and dysfunction of the central nervous system. Very often, as in this case, the full extent of retardation and damage will not become evident until the child reaches milestones in its development, at which point matters can be assessed. The fact that such deficits cannot be identified until that stage does not constitute fresh damage. It merely means that the damage was already done but has only then become apparent.

 

  1. It seems to me that this is fatal to the appellant’s contention. The time at which harm, acknowledged in this case to amount to grievous bodily harm, occurred was whilst CP was in the womb. At that stage the child did not have legal personality so as to constitute “any other person” within the meaning of s23. The basis upon which the actus reus is extended in a manslaughter case cannot apply here since nothing equivalent to death occurred to CP after her birth.

 

 

 

What the Court of Appeal say in effect is that in the absence of Parliament specifically saying that an offence can be committed against a foetus in the womb, the Courts should be reluctant to take that upon themselves. Parliament has passed some legislation about offences that a mother can perpetrate on a foetus (using poison to attempt to procure a miscarriage, for example) and if Parliament had wanted to make excessive consumption of alcohol during pregnancy a criminal offence, it could have done so.

 

 

  1. If section 23 had expressly included a foetus as well as “any other person”, EQ would have committed the actus reus of the offence during her pregnancy. But that is not what Parliament has provided. Accordingly, it is because a foetus does not come within the ambit of section 23 that Mr Foy’s argument breaks down.

 

  1. I am fortified in the conclusion that I have reached by a number of other considerations. First, the approach to section 23 that I have adopted is consistent with the established structure of the criminal law as it relates to the foetus. Parliament has identified certain circumstances where criminal liability arises if a mother causes injury to her foetus. Thus the offence of a pregnant woman using poison, with intent to procure her own miscarriage (section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) specifically provides for circumstances in which a woman administers poison or a noxious thing to herself. This offence does not apply to the circumstances of the present case because it requires intent. Section 1 of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 provides that it is an offence to destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive before it is born. Parliament could have legislated to criminalise the excessive drinking of a pregnant woman, but it has not done so outside these offences. Since the relationship between a pregnant woman and her foetus is an area in which Parliament has made a (limited) intervention, I consider that the court should be slow to interpret general criminal legislation as applying to it.

 

 

CB’s appeal was unsuccessful and it is therefore NOT a criminal offence to excessively consume alcohol during pregnancy. (As said at the outset, it is not a green light to mothers to do that)

 

I think that most lawyers felt that CB’s case was not going to succeed, and that a foetus would not (at present) be classed as ‘any other person’ in a legal sense to make out the s23 offence.

 

Does that mean that it was a waste of time? Well, not really. Firstly, it has drawn publicity and attention to the risks of drinking during pregnancy. Secondly, it has drawn attention to the fact that children like CB aren’t receiving compensation and won’t unless Parliament either change the law (or probably more sensibly change the terms of reference for the CICA to allow them to pay compensation for victims of violent offences AND victims of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome)

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About suesspiciousminds

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

8 responses

  1. The decision of the Court of Appeal is irrelevant for mothers targeted by social workers.There are many cases where a glass or two of wine has resulted in babies being removed at birth and later adopted by strangers.Any parent acquitted by a criminal court can count on hostile findings in a family court in all cases where social workers have been involved.The inevitable result being the removal of babies at birth for subsequent adoption by strangers.

    • Ashamed to be British

      Sadly, there is nothing that can be done for those children, but now there is case law for future victims who might have a sip once a month – only to find a sw ready to take their baby

    • Drinking to excess can lead to care proceedings, that’s true. And someone who has a long history of alcoholism and problems in parenting as a result could find themselves in trouble if they consume alcohol even in small amounts (it is very hard to be totally sure about whether that’s a “lapse” or a “relapse”) but I’ve never come across a case where a consumption of a glass or two of wine (for someone who hasn’t previously had a major problem with alcohol dependency) has led to proceedings.

  2. stella aka toni macleod

    what seems to be lacking in the judgement is the fact that FAS is significantly down to the biological genetics and the physical make up of a family for example one mother may drink one single glass of wine and the baby may suffer FAS whereas another mother may drink a bottle of wine a day during pregnancy and give birth to a perfectly healthy baby …..

    so where would one draw the line ? ban all pregnant mothers from drinking im sure the ‘upper class’ would LOVE that ! NOT which is why it would never pass as law could you imagine upper class sticking to no night caps etc exactly so its safe to say we shouldnt have anything to worry about

    what does stick in my mind is that a very similar case was raised in america and caused total uproar to do with a husband and wife mid divorce she was pregnant and he got her sectioned or incarcerated it was a few years ago now so its rather blurry because he alleged she was drinking during the pregnancy pro women activists went wild and she actually got done for it if i remember correctly :/ may be worth trying to find that case to see on what arguments they won/lost

    stella xx

    • Yes, the problem with criminalising this would be – are you prosecuting pregnant women who drink at all, those who drink to excess, or only those who do that and then give birth to a child with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome? I have worked with mothers who were drinking astronomical amounts and there’s been no FAS and others who were drinking too much (but nowhere near as much) and the child has has FAS.

      And the other tricky issue that FAS often doesn’t get diagnosed fully until much much later, meaning the police charging a mother maybe two or three years after the offence.

      Much better, I think to either widen the scope of CICA to include FAS specifically, or for the Government to have some other form of compensation scheme for FAS children.

      • Ashamed to be British

        I fail to see how even those specifics can carry weight, like I already pointed out, some women do not know they are pregnant, therefore haven’t intended harm on anyone.
        Those who have drunk knowingly, are going to be prosecuted, as you point out, years down the line, when the child has formed his/her attachments, however, as Toni points out, some will suffer FAS, some won’t, how is it equal to all men, if only those who caused the harm are arrested and charged, those who strike lucky have still committed the same crime, and are still a potential risk of relapse.

        So what’s the next step? Bloods are taken for those who do know they are pregnant, do we test them for alcohol and drugs? Eating soft cheese? Eggs?
        Do we test the men, we all know sperm damage through excessive alcohol/drug consumption can lead to deformities in a foetus? To hell with it, test the grandparents, brothers and sisters too, just in case we’ve missed a genetic link somewhere.

        It’s not workable and I’m glad this application failed

  3. Thank for this blog. I was interested in this case so your summary is really helpful. I was a little confused by the final decision however. It seems based on the fact that damage was done in utero even though it becomes evident later. However, the house of lords ‘rules’ mentions ‘harm suffered’ by the foetus.

    “Violence towards a foetus which results in harm suffered after the baby has been born alive can give rise to criminal responsibility even if the harm would not have been criminal (apart from statute) if it had been suffered in utero.”

    It seems that this distinction between harm and damage is important. The child is clearly still suffering harm and therefore is there not a clear case for criminal responsibility?

    • The distinction really is quite subtle – you can’t murder a foetus (though you can commit unlawful abortion crimes) because you have to intend to kill a human being, which the foetus isn’t. But you can commit manslaughter by hitting a pregnant woman (intending to cause her serious harm) and the baby is born alive and then dies, even if the mother doesn’t die. That’s because manslaughter requires only the intent to cause serious harm to a human being, and another victim can die as a result of that action.

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