There has been a lot of media interest and frustration about the death of Poppi Worthington. She died in December 2012 and was just thirteen months old. A finding of fact hearing took place in care proceedings and judgment was given on that in March 2014. Despite media interest and applications, the contents of that judgment are still not known other than to those directly involved in the case.
A reporting restriction order remains in place, that prevents the contents of that hearing being shared in the media or published. [As ever with reporting restriction orders, they apply to me and to my commentators, so if the information is leaked elsewhere on the net, please do not link to it]
We do know that an inquest took place, with an open verdict and the Coroner releasing Poppi’s name into the real world and was recorded as describing her death as ‘unusual and strange’
The Press were interested in the suggestions that either the finding of fact hearing in the care proceedings might be a miscarriage of justice (based on the Coroner’s verdict being open, rather than concluding that Poppi was unlawfully killed) OR that the finding of fact hearing was critical of the Local Authority and social workers and that this was being hushed up.
[See for example, the Daily Mail piece here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2810262/How-council-tried-baby-s-death-secret-protect-social-workers.html ]
Either of those things are possible, it is really hard to prove or disprove them until we see the judgment itself.
For a long time, the decision to hold back the contents of the judgment despite media interest, was on the basis that there might be a pending criminal trial.
The police decided on 16th March 2015 not to charge the father with any criminal offences. The Press obviously thought that this would mean that the judgment would be released and they could tell Poppi’s story.
However, as a result of enquiries that had been made in the police investigation, including fresh medical experts, the father considered that there was scope to challenge the decision of the fact finding hearing and the decision to make Care Orders on Poppi’s siblings. [I don’t think it is rocket science to infer that the final outcome of the finding of fact hearing was that father had done something to Poppi that led to her death, which he disputes]
The issues then for Mr Justice Peter Jackson to resolve were :
1. Should this be an application to the Court of Appeal on fresh evidence OR an application for re-hearing made to the High Court who had originally heard the case?
2. If the latter, should the application for re-hearing be granted?
3. Should the original judgment be published prior to the conclusion of that appeal/re-hearing?
And that is what he dealt with in the case of Cumbria County Council v M and F (Application for rehearing) 2015
- At the original hearing, the main medical evidence came from three pathologists. Dr Alison Armour, Dr Stephanie Bitetti and Dr Stephen Leadbeatter and from Dr Victoria Evans, a paediatrician. Their opinions coincided in some respects and diverged in others. I substantially accepted the evidence of Dr Armour.
- As a result of the fact-finding judgment, the police commissioned further medical enquiries. Opinions have now been given by Dr Nathaniel Cary (pathologist) and Dr Liina Kiho (histopathologist). Their views diverge in a number of respects from those of Dr Armour. An opinion has also been obtained from Dr Victoria Aziz, who is described as a forensic examiner.
- In their submissions, the parties have analysed the extent to which the more recent pathology evidence differs from that which was given that the original hearing, with reference to five particular post-mortem appearances.
- On behalf of the father and the Guardian, it is argued that the additional medical evidence raises issues of sufficient importance to warrant a rehearing. On behalf of the local authority and the mother, it is said that the issues are ones of nuance and interpretation that do not amount to a reason for reopening the matter. It is also said that the process by which the new evidence was gathered may have had shortcomings.
- In my view, the further evidence contains matters of mixed fact and opinion that deserve further consideration. In particular, it contains an alternative unifying hypothesis for the post-mortem appearances. That hypothesis was not overlooked at the earlier hearing, but it did not receive the degree of attention that is now being paid to it. Arguments about any consequences arising from the process by which the further opinions were obtained cannot be resolved without significant further inquiry, and a decision on the father’s application should not in my view be postponed for that to occur.
- The circumstances in which the court will reopen established findings of fact are rare. There is a public and private interest in litigation being final. The impact of a renewal of the litigation on the family members can be significant, as is undoubtedly the case here. Further proceedings are also expensive, in this case to the public, and consume court time that is needed for other cases.
- There are two ways in which an application for a further hearing can be made. The first is by way of an application to appeal out of time on the basis of fresh evidence. The second is by way of an application to the trial court for a rehearing. In this case, the latter course has been selected. It is argued on behalf of the mother that the former course would have been better. However, it is acknowledged that the appeal route would be likely to lengthen the overall process in circumstances where the earliest resolution is in the interests of the children. In the overall circumstances, and bearing in mind that this court has had an ongoing involvement since the conclusion of the care proceedings because of issues of publicity, I find that the father’s application is appropriately made here.
So, in these circumstances, an application for re-hearing was better than an application to appeal. What about the merits of the application itself?
- His choice of venue will have been influenced by the way in which the tests that apply in each court have been articulated. An application to appeal out of time engages the well-known test in Ladd v Marshall 1954 1 WLR 1489. The new evidence must be such that it would probably have an important influence on the result of the case, though it need not be decisive, and it must be apparently credible, though it need not be incontrovertible. An application to the first instance court for a rehearing engages the guidance contained in paragraph 33 of the decision of the President in Re ZZ (Children) 2014 EWFC 9 where he endorsed the words of Mrs Justice Hale in an earlier decision: “Above all, the court is bound to want to consider whether there is any reason to think that a rehearing of the issue will result in any different finding from that in the earlier trial. By this I mean something more than the mere fact that different judges might on occasions reach different conclusions on the same evidence … The court will want to know … whether there is any new evidence or information casting doubt on the accuracy of the original findings.” To this, the President added that “one does not get beyond the first stage unless there is some real reason to believe that the earlier findings require revisiting. Mere speculation and hope are not enough. There must be solid grounds for challenge. But for my own part I would be disinclined to set the test any higher.”
- There may be cases in which the formulations of the tests on appeal and at first instance might make a difference to the outcome, but I do not consider that this is one of them. The court’s overriding objective is to deal with cases justly, having regard to welfare issues involved, and that is my goal.
- The considerations that persuade me that justice requires that a further hearing should take place are these:
(i) The finding of fact addressed in the more recent evidence is of central importance for the family. It is of a kind that determines the children’s future and is of great significance to the parents.(ii) It will be important for the children to have an accurate understanding of what happened to their sister. The more recent evidence has the effect of raising doubt about the existing conclusion. The children’s welfare requires that the matter is resolved.
(iii) The more recent evidence, like the previous medical evidence, comes from a reputable source; further, it was commissioned in response to concerns expressed by this court about the earlier police enquiry.
(iv) While the outcome of a further hearing cannot be foreseen, it is possible that a review of the overall medical evidence may lead to a different conclusion. It may, or it may not. What can be said is that there is a serious issue to determine in the light of the further opinions.
- As to the scope of the further hearing, oral evidence is likely to be limited to medical testimony. I am unlikely to admit other oral evidence, unless a particular matter needs clarification. Transcripts and notes of evidence from the earlier proceedings will be gathered. A meeting of the doctors should be held in order to establish points of agreement and disagreement. The parties will present a draft directions order, having made further enquiries.
- At an earlier stage, the father submitted that any rehearing should take place before a different judge. That submission was not in the end pursued, in my view correctly. There are considerable advantages in judicial continuity in a case of this complexity.
- The outcome is that the further hearing will take place in the autumn.
So there will be a re-hearing in the autumn. But we are not yet into May – what happens between now and then?
As to the publication of the original judgment, I remain on view that this is not appropriate at this point in time, for the reasons given on 30 March. However, I have expressed a provisional view that it should be published at or around the time that the rehearing begins, rather than it being withheld until that hearing ends. There is a proper public interest in the course that these proceedings, and the other procedures surrounding Poppi’s death, have taken. The media will be able to describe matters more effectively if the original findings can be described at the point when they come under review. I have also raised the possibility of the further hearing taking place in public. I will hear from the parties and the media about these issues at the next directions hearing.
So the judgment will not be published until the autumn. It MIGHT be published before the re-hearing finishes, and even possibly at around the time that it begins.
The reference to the judgment on 30th March is this one – which was considering the position given that the police had dropped their case against father, but father was wanting to challenge the findings in the family Court.
From that judgment
- On the question of publication of the judgment, there is division between the parties:
(i) The media, on whose behalf Ms Caoilfhionn Gallagher has presented written submissions, supplemented today by Mr Murphy, argues for publication. It says that the matter is of the highest public interest, both as to the circumstances of the death and as to any agency failures. There is a risk that an information vacuum will be filled with inaccurate speculation. Moreover, continued non-publication would be likely to reignite concerns about “secret courts” and lack of transparency in the family justice system.(ii) The local authority argues that the judgment should be published now that a charging decision has been taken. Even if the findings are reopened, there is a public interest in being informed about the process as it occurs.
(iii) The mother supports publication, particularly as non-publication heightens speculation in an unhelpful way.
(iv) The father opposes publication at this point. On his behalf, Mr Rowley QC argues that the evidence gathered during the father’s criminal investigation forms a credible basis for querying the court’s findings. He submits that it would be wrong, taking into account the father’s rights, to publish the judgment ahead of a decision about whether the findings will or will not be reviewed.
(v) On behalf of the children, the Children’s Guardian opposes publication of the judgment at this time. The children, whose future plans remain at a sensitive stage, would have to face a heavy bout of publicity now with the possibility of further, conflicting publicity at a later stage.
- The Practice Guidance issued by the President of the Family Division on 16 January 2014 and entitled “Transparency in the Family Courts: Publication of Judgments”  1 FLR 733 advises that fact-finding judgments in serious cases should be published unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. Quite apart from that guidance, this should in my view be the starting point in a case of this kind. The public interest that the media contends for is very significant indeed. As I have said elsewhere, I am aware of the value of the media being able to describe events in real time as they unfold. The risk of speculation replacing information is also a relevant consideration.
- I have nevertheless concluded that it would not be right for the fact-finding judgment to be published now. The court retains control over the question of publication and must give due weight to the public interest, the interests of justice and the interests of the individual parties, not least those of the children concerned. It would be wrong in my view to place in the public domain a judgment that would be likely to receive considerable publicity immediately before taking a decision on the question of whether that judgment should be reviewed. To do so would be unfair to the father and contrary to the welfare of the children.
- I well understand the desire of the media to carry out its role as fully as possible, and the frustration that is felt at the course of events in this case, in particular where one obstacle to publication is removed only to be replaced by another. However, I am clear that a proper balancing of the rights of all concerned leads to the conclusion that the judgment cannot be published yet. In saying this, I repeat my intention that it shall be published when it can be.
Given the Daily Mail story linked to earlier, it is worth noting that at the hearing on 30th March, the Local Authority (i.e Social Services) were of the same view as the Press, that the original judgment should be released and published. I can also see however, that if you were the father, hoping to get that decision overturned that you wouldn’t want the Press reporting all the details of how a Court found that you did something dreadful to your child BEFORE you get a chance to persuade the Court that they had got this wrong. I can also see that for the Guardian, representing the children, it would not be ideal to see in the papers terrible headlines about your father and your sibling, and then possibly to have a different version of events and fresh stories AFTER the re-hearing. But also, I can see that this all feels very unsatisfactory – the Press have a story here which is a genuine public interest. Maybe there were failings from professionals from which others could learn, maybe not. Maybe a family has been broken up as a result of a mistake in the family courts, maybe not. The Press legitimately want to report the story and they aren’t able to do so.
Not an easy situation.
I also note that there is to be a Serious Case Review (which is the internal investigation where a child dies and there might be lessons to be learned). Those generally have to be published, so I wonder if the report might be timed to come in after the autumn re-hearing; as otherwise the Press could legitimately report on the conclusions and substance of that report.