The Court of Appeal in Re A-S (children) 2015 had to deal with an appeal, the facts of which were genuinely shocking to me. And that is as a lawyer who has been dealing with Children Act 1989 cases for over twenty years now.
Within care proceedings, a range of findings were made against the mother, the most serious of which was that she had deliberately drowned her baby (who survived and is fine now). The mother’s case, including her case on appeal, was that she had been negligent in leaving her child unattended in the bath, where he became submerged, but that it was an accident.
You may be thinking that it must be very difficult to establish to the requisite standard of proof whether the incident of drowning was deliberate or accidental. The shocking thing about this case is not merely the incident itself, but that the whole thing was recorded by way of a 999 call.
The call lasted for around 15 minutes. The mother telephoned 999 to say that there had been an accident, that her baby had been left unattended in a bath and had slipped under the water. However, that 999 call is recorded, and the medical experts (and indeed the Judges) who listened to it had three major concerns :-
1. That up until around the nine minute mark, the baby can be heard making normal baby noises that would not be consistent with a child who had nearly drowned.
2. That at around the nine minute mark, the mother stops speaking although the paramedics can be heard trying to talk to her and engage with her. And the sound of running water is heard.
3. That after that period, a scream is heard from the mother, and thereafter, the noises made by the baby are consistent with a child having been immersed under water – the baby is heard again grunting and coughing then in further respiratory distress and suddenly stops breathing at 10 minutes 48 seconds – and he was in this position until the paramedic arrived and resuscitated him at around the 15 minute mark.
There was also evidence from several medical professionals that it was just not possible that a child would have nearly drowned, showed no ill effects for nine minutes, then stopped breathing and required resuscitation by a paramedic. The sequence of events is just wrong.
“Diana Howlett … is a consultant paediatrician of 20 years. She and two of her colleagues of similar experience, Dr Goldsworthy and Dr Linton, who had been asked to listen to the recording of the call. Her report is at G87. Putting its contents very simply all the three doctors say there is a disparity in their view between the history given by the mother (the child had been found drowned a few minutes prior to the phone call) and the “auditory history” of the child on the call, ie the crying and other sounds L was making in the first 10 minutes of the call and his presentation when medical help arrived at the house. They concluded that they can hear the sound of running water after 10 minutes and the explanation is that it is at this point the child is being drowned. In their written submissions Mr Ekaney QC and Miss Evans ask me to treat this evidence very carefully. The doctor said in cross-examination “we were asked to give an opinion but none of us would consider ourselves experts in this area. It raises more questions really”. I do not intend to put any significant weight on this evidence. They heard what they heard, the baby appeared to be crying while mother was shouting things like “don’t die”, “stand up”, and in particular “wake up, wake up” when from the noise he was making he appeared to be awake. I have to say I heard that too.”
- I turn to the report of Dr D S James of the Wales Institute of Forensic Medicine at Cardiff University. It was accurately and sufficiently summarised by Judge Marston in his judgment as follows:
“He says if you ignore the content of the 999 call M’s description of immersion, apparent respiratory arrest, gradual recovery after rescue breaths and presentation to paramedics after 10-15 minutes wet, cold and in respiratory distress but responding well to oxygen with an eventual good recovery is in keeping with the pathology of near drowning. If the child was not in respiratory distress and apparently vocalising normally for an infant of his age ie “well”, the description of a very unwell infant, cold, quiet and collapsed raises the question why there has been a significant and sudden deterioration in his condition. In his report the doctor puts two possibilities, either it is a complication of the immersion or “there has been a further episode of immersion causing L to collapse”. In his conclusions he says the baby would not usually be normal for 10 minutes prior to a sudden deterioration but the consequences of near drowning are complex and variable and there are pathophysiological mechanisms which merit consideration by paediatric clinicians.”
- Finally, I go to the report of Dr Stephen Playfor, Consultant Paediatric Intensivist in the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Dr Playfor’s report contains a very careful and detailed analysis of what can be heard on the recording of the 999 call. He constructed what he called “a robust timeline of events”. His opinion, on the balance of probability, was that L was drowned during the interval of 49 seconds between 21.43:28 and 21.44:17. (Since the recording started at 21.34:48, this corresponds with the interval between 8 minutes 40 seconds and 9 minutes 29 seconds.) He opined that the likelihood of the respiratory distress which can be heard subsequently on the recording occurring as a physiological response to an episode of drowning before the making of the 999 call is “very small (<5% chance).” He said:
“A single episode of drowning occurring before the recorded 999 call … is not compatible with the sounds contained within that recording.”
“L can be heard to vocalise and cry normally during the first 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the recorded 999 call without any sign of respiratory distress. During this period I am confident that he was conscious, ‘near normal’ and not in any need of resuscitation.”
The conclusion that the Judge was inexorably drawn to was that the mother had made a 999 call when there was nothing wrong with the child, but during the course of the call had done deliberately to the child what she was claiming had happened accidentally.
About the only argument that mother could deploy is that this seems unbelievably improbable, and so she deployed it.
“I now turn to consider the final part of [the] jigsaw, M’s evidence. She deploys a number of powerful points before she even gets into the witness box. First there is the inherently unlikely nature of the allegation that a mother would drown her own child. Her father, for example, thought such a possibility here as absurd. That does not of course change the standard of proof but it is something I must have strongly in mind when considering the case. Next there is something called the wider canvass. Here I am dealing with the loving, kind mother who it is said was without external stressors and who gave a consistent account throughout.”
It was, of course, a very significant finding for the Judge to make, particularly in a case where there’s nothing in the background features of the case that would cast any light on why the mother would do something as peculiar and harmful as this.
“The medical evidence all points in the same direction. The baby was normal until about 8/9 minutes into the 999 call. There is no reason related to an earlier drowning incident that would cause the post 10 minutes in collapse. The Mother’s evidence of what happened is not substantiated by any external matters eg a pan of burned food or a full baby bath, there is some evidence of what might be brown flecks of faeces in the bath but no other bit of the Mother’s story is supported The Mother’s evidence is shot through with so many lies and so much vagueness that I am forced to conclude she is trying to hide something. The only thing that she can possibly be attempting to hide is that there was no incident of drowning in the bath and that she is responsible for attempting to drown the child after 8 minutes and 40 seconds of the phone call for about 47 seconds. Most likely this was under the tap in the conservatory. I cannot speculate on why she made the call in the first place or why she did what she did. It seems to me that at the point where she seeks reassurance from Mr Mahony that the baby will be alright and he says the child is seriously ill she becomes hysterical because she realises what she has done. It may be that she did not intend to kill the baby. Until the mother tells the truth we are left with speculation.
I find [the] allegation proved on the balance of probabilities.”
The Judge added a clarification about the mother’s motivation for making the 999 call
“With regard to the 999 call I have to conclude that the 999 call was instigated for a reason I can only speculate about, and I do not think it is appropriate for me to speculate. My finding is that at the start of that call the child had not been subject to an incident of drowning. I made that finding specifically on all of the evidence that I heard; the medical evidence; the evidence from all of the parties who gave evidence; and the witnesses that were called. I do not know why the mother was distressed during the first part of the call. She was certainly at the time of the arrival of the paramedic in a calm condition, and became distressed – in fact hysterical according to the paramedic – after she was told, as I pointed out in my judgment, the condition of her baby was very serious. I rely on the totality of the evidence about the 999 call. I gave only marginal weight to the three paediatricians who were not jointly instructed experts and who, one of whom in Mr Kenny’s cross-examination, conceded that they were only again marginally connected with the case. I obviously give a great deal more weight to the jointly instructed experts, and I have listened to the call myself and read the transcript.”
This is one of the sad truths about Court hearings – sometimes even after every scrap of paper is obtained and every witness is scoured in cross-examination, the Court doesn’t get to the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth. We will never know what made the mother do what she did here, and speculation was quite rightly put out of the picture by the Judge.
The appeal was on the basis largely that the Judge had gone too far in making a finding that the mother had deliberately injured the baby by drowing it, after making a 999 call.
The problem that mother’s team had to overcome was that the 999 recording was not only compelling evidence for the medical experts, but that it was striking and easy to follow for anyone listening to it, including the Court of Appeal Judges.
- This appeal comes before us in forensically unusual circumstances. As I have already remarked, at the heart of the appeal is the question of what it is that can be heard on the recording of the 999 call; crucially, what exactly it is that can be heard of L. Each of us has listened to the recording. I have listened to the recording more than once. We are therefore in almost as good a position as the judge to come to a conclusion.
- The experts described what they had heard on the tape during the first nine minutes or so of the recording. It is apparent from his judgment and his subsequent clarification that their descriptions accorded with what Judge Marston heard. It accords with what I heard when I listened to the recording.
- Two points emerge:
i) First, during the first nine minutes or so of the recording one hears what Dr Howlett and her colleagues described in their report as “Normal baby vocalisations”including “polysyllabic babble and normal multi-tonal crying.” Equally important is what one does not hear: coughing, grunting, wheezing or other sounds of respiratory distress.ii) Secondly, the layman’s impression is confirmed by expert opinion: what can be heard is not compatible – the words used both by Dr Howlett and her colleagues and by Dr Playfor – with a previous drowning.
Put very simply, a baby who presented as L did to Mr Mahoney when he arrived, would not have been vocalising, indeed would not have been capable of vocalising, as L was during the first nine minutes or so of the recording, if he had drowned before the 999 call was made.
- It was this which drove Judge Marston to his conclusion as to the timing of L’s drowning. That was plainly a conclusion properly open to him. Indeed, I would without hesitation have reached the same conclusion. L was not drowned before the 999 was made; he was drowned some nine minutes or so after the recording began.
- That being so, the only remaining question is whether this drowning was itself accidental or, as the judge found, deliberate. Judge Marston inferred that it was deliberate. In my judgment hewas entitled to come to that conclusion. Mr Ekaney submits that the judge was here in the realm of mere speculation. I do not, with respect, agree. Two factors point compellingly in this direction. First, it follows from the ascertainment of the true timing of the drowning, that the mother’s 999 call was false. L had not at that time “fallen in the water”. There had been no negligence on the mother’s part. What an astonishing coincidence that, some ten minutes later, L should actually have suffered an accidental drowning, that precisely what the mother had fabricated should so soon become reality. Secondly, if this drowning was in truth accidental, then why on earth did the mother not say so? Why should she persist in her lies? It would of course expose her to the charge that she had made a false 999 call, and wasted the time of the emergency services, but surely better that than being found to havedeliberately drowned her own baby.
- Where Judge Marston did, correctly, say that he would be entering into the realm of speculation was in relation to two matters: first, the mother’s reasons for making the false 999 call and then deliberately drowning L; and, secondly, as to the mechanism she adopted. The fact that, in relation to these crucial matters, he could only speculate no doubt gave Judge Marston pause for thought, just as they have me.
- Given his, and my, inability to provide anything except the most speculative answers, could he be confident, can I be confident, in relation to the timing of the drowning? That, at the end of the day, as it seems to me, is what this appeal really comes down to.
The appeal was dismissed, but the Court of Appeal went further than saying that His Honour Judge Marston was not shown to be wrong.
- So far as concerns Judge Marston, I have no doubt that the appeal must be dismissed, essentially for the reasons so succinctly articulated by McFarlane LJ. Despite all Mr Ekaney’s very considerable and very skilful endeavours, Judge Marston’s ultimate conclusion is, in my judgment, unassailable. In the light of all the evidence, and in particular in the light of what he heard when listening to the recording, he was entitled to conclude as he did and for the reasons he gave.
- That suffices to dispose of the appeal, but in these very unusual circumstances I can, and should, go further. As I have said, having listened to the recording, I am convinced that the judge was right. What I was listening to during the first nine minutes or so was a baby who had not then been drowned. From this it follows inexorably, given all the other evidence, that the mother’s 999 call was false and that the drowning which took place at some point thereafter but before Mr Mahoney arrived was indeed deliberate. I have anxiously asked myself whether I can truly be that confident, given that I am left speculating, as was Judge Marston, on important matters to which such a finding necessarily invites attention. I can only say that, despite my inability to provide more than speculative answers to those questions, I am convinced by what I heard. The recording is, to anyone who has heard it, extraordinarily compelling. It drives one inexorably to the conclusion at which Judge Marston arrived.
This must have been a very terrible case to deal with. I’m sure that in order to deal with it properly, those involved had to listen to that harrowing tape many many times. Having had to listen to that sort of tape myself , I know that it stays with you very vividly for many years, and never completely leaves you.
Cases like this are of course, very very rare. When children are injured, it is more usually a momentary lapse, a loss of self-control or careless handling without thought to the strength that an adult can bring to bear. Sometimes, as in this case Cumbria CC v Q 2015http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2015/59.html , something that looks like horrific abuse can actually have an innocent explanation. That case took 18 medical witnesses to arrive at the juidicial finding that the baby had rickets and thus had a propensity to fracture more easily than an average child. Up until that point, there had been features that would have led anyone to be deeply suspicious (both parents had convictions for violent offences, the parents had given inconsistent evidence and lied about things, the injuries were multiple, serious and ‘classic’ nai type injuries)
It really is very rare, that as here, something happens that leads a parent to deliberately set out to harm their child.
From what is reported here, there was nothing that could have led anyone to predict that this might happen, and so we are fortunate that mother made the 999 call and that a paramedic arrived. This does not appear to have been something that could have been predicted or prevented before it happened. If someone had ever alleged that such a risk was likely, or even theoretically possible, before it happened, they would have looked a fool. Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again.