Another judgment from Mr Justice Baker, who I’m becoming increasingly fond of (although I think his decision about termination of parental responsibility probably will get overturned by the Court of Appeal).
This is Re L and M (Children) 2013
It is, sadly, not a terribly unusual case – unusual in society in general but not in the field I practice in. There were multiple and serious injuries to the child, and the medical opinion as to how these had been caused was at variance with how the parents said the injuries had been caused. The Judge carefully considered all of the evidence, and the judgment is a perfect analysis of the caselaw and the competing factors that the Judge has to consider, not least of course the well-known quotation from Dame Butler-Sloss “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 would throw a light into corners that are at present dark.”
The findings against the parents, including that they had not been honest in their account, were made by the Judge. So far, so commonplace, but there are two features in the case which lift it, and make it worthy of discussion.
Firstly, the judicial approach towards the instruction of experts in the case. (It will not surprise you to learn that I completely agree with the Judge here, and commend him for saying these things. I have grave doubts that a case like Al Alas Wray would reach the same outcome, were we to try it again next year, because getting to the truth required the Court to be amenable to the instruction of multiple experts and no doubt delays were incurred in getting to the truth, which was that the parents were not responsible for the dreadful injuries and that there was a medical cause, allowing them to be reunited with a child rather than that child being adopted. It is simply, but ghastly, to imagine, how that case would have developed if the Court had simply heard evidence from the (very eminent) treating medical professionals.
We don’t hear, for my mind, enough about Al Alas Wray. We have set off upon a path, in family justice, of child rescue dominating over family preservation, no doubt in part due to the rightful sense that what happened to Baby P should never happen again. But what happened to the Al Alas Wray family ought not to happen to other families, and what could have been far worse (that their child was wrongly permanently separated from them) is equally something to be avoided if at all possible. It worries me deeply that such cases might slip by us in the future.
- As mentioned above, no MRI was carried out on M in August 2011. Dr. Stoodley reminded the court of the recommendation of the Royal College of Radiologists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (“Standards for Radiological Investigations of Suspected Non-accidental Injury”, March 2008) that an MRI scan should be performed if an initial CT scan of a child is abnormal (para 15.3). He informed the court that there have been a number of recent cases in which such MRI has not been performed in these circumstances. Plainly from a forensic point of view, the absence of an MRI contemporaneous to the other imaging is a lacuna in the evidence. All the experts in this case agreed that an MRI should have been carried out at the time. I recognise, of course, that there may be clinical reasons why the treating physicians choose not to carry out imaging. I also note Mr. Richards’ observation that resources for MR imaging are scarce. I share Dr. Stoodley’s view, however, that “whilst the lack of an MRI scan at the time of M’s acute admission will not have affected her clinical care, an opportunity was potentially lost to gain useful forensic information”. It may therefore be appropriate for the professional bodies to review this issue to establish the extent to which the Royal Colleges’ recommendations are being followed
- There is, in addition, a more fundamental point of general importance. This case demonstrates yet again the invaluable role played by medical experts in cases of alleged non-accidental injury. There is rightly a renewed scrutiny on the use of experts in family proceedings, and some potent arguments have been advanced against what is perceived as the misuse and overuse of experts. In response, the Family Procedure Rules have been amended so as to impose more stringent regulation of the instruction of experts. Henceforth, under the amended rule 25.1, “expert evidence will be restricted to that which in the opinion of the court is necessary to assist the court to resolve the proceedings”.
“Judges will be rigorous in resisting the call for unnecessary use of experts in family proceedings but equally will not hesitate to endorse the instruction of experts where, under the new rules, they are satisfied that they are necessary for the determination of the issues in proceedings.”
- This case provides a further example. The medical picture presented to Judge Marshall created what she thought, and Munby LJ in the CA agreed, was a conundrum. In directing a retrial, Munby LJ, whilst leaving the scope of the retrial to be decided by the judge conducting it, suggested that there should include a more exhaustive search of the literature. The instruction of Dr. Stoodley, a further search of the literature by the experts, and the process of the retrial in which the experts have each made an important contribution, have enabled this court to resolve the conundrum.
- Court-appointed experts play a vital role in difficult cases of non-accidental injury. As this case demonstrates, it will ordinarily not be sufficient to rely on the opinion of the treating physicians in this type of case. In respect of M’s rib fractures, the court-appointed experts provided insights that would not otherwise have been available to the court. The radiologists who initially reported on the X-rays, but who were not called to give evidence in the hearing, identified evidence further possible ten rib fractures. Neither Dr. Chapman nor Dr. Halliday identified any fractures at these points, and the local authority has not pursued this issue. As Mr. Kirk pointed out in closing submissions, the consequence is that this case looks somewhat different from how it appeared initially to the treating physicians. Had the case been presented purely on the basis of their interpretations, the focus of the court would have been significantly different. In respect of the skull fractures, as both Dr. Stoodley and Mr. Richards recognised, it is possible that in the past lucencies that had been routinely but wrongly diagnosed as fractures in spite of the fact that it was recognised that fissures and other abnormalities existed. Both experts had been involved in a case in which they had diagnosed a fracture but a bone pathologist had identified a traumatised suture. As Mr. Richards said in evidence, “we are beginning to get pathological evidence coming out to make us re-think our thoughts about fissures and fractures in the same way [as] a few years ago we got more evidence about birth causing subdural haemorrhages.” This is another example of how medical opinion about non-accidental head injury is continuing to evolve.
- This case provides further illustration of the important role of court-instructed experts in these difficult cases where the medical evidence is unusual and therefore outwith the experience of many hospital doctors. In the circumstances, it goes without saying that it is vital that experts of sufficient calibre and experience should continue to be available where the court considers their instruction necessary to resolve the proceedings. In the course of this trial, I have been informed that a number of doctors commonly instructed in these difficult cases are not at present accepting instructions. Any impediment to the instruction of experts in these difficult cases will make it much harder for the court to achieve a just and timely outcome for the child.
And secondly, as this was just a finding of fact hearing, there would then be a phase two, where assessments took place as to the future risk of harm that the parents might pose. The Judge reinforced this :
- I make these findings only after prolonged thought and with regret and reluctance. I know these parents have endured a great deal of hardship over the past few years, in particular the tragic loss of C and now these protracted proceedings leading to these findings. I accept that in many other ways the mother and father have been good parents to L and M. I accept that they are devoted to their children. I accept that they are desperate to care for them again.
- All children should wherever possible be brought up by their parents. That is as true of L and M as of any other children. I do not regard these findings as the end of the story. All the professionals in the case – the social workers, the guardian and the court – must do what we can to see if L and M can be safely returned to their parents. But the primary responsibility now lies with the parents themselves. I urge them, even at this late stage, to be more frank with the court so that we can all understand what happened to M and work together to ensure that she and her brother are safe in the future.
Nothing terribly new or controversial there, but a warning between the lines about how such cases will be dealt with in our brave new world.
The President has indicated that cases involving non-accidental injuries will only go beyond the 26 week limit in exceptional cases, and the mere fact of a finding of fact hearing being required won’t be sufficient to warrant a delay. Well, that’s all well and good, but what it will mean in practice is that where now, these parents would have something like a 10-14 week period to reflect on the judicial findings, perhaps accept them, perhaps partially move towards them, perhaps put some practical or therapeutic arrangements in place, they will from autumn of this year, probably get a 2-3 week period to do so. The consequence of findings in a case like this, might be that a mother and father need to separate from one another, and it seems to me inhumane to expect them to make decisions of such gravity so quickly. Additionally, that assessment of future risk would probably have been undertaken by an independent expert, whereas from autumn of this year, it almost certainly will be undertaken by the social worker, who just 2-3 weeks earlier was effectively prosecuting those findings. It isn’t much time to turn around the parents views, and still less for the parents to be able to turn around the view of the social worker.
We shall see. The revised PLO is nearly upon us, and it will be happening, so all that we in the system can do is to try our best to make it work fairly for all involved. I’ll try to stop carping from the sidelines and try to come up with positive solutions as to how we make this system work fairly, but my fundamental thought is that it WILL require WORK to make it fair and that approaching the new regime as “like the old one but faster” won’t be sufficient, people in the system will have to be more alive to the need for us to get decisions that are not only swift but RIGHT.