A nine-month old girl has been returned to her family after her parents won an unusual High Court case in which they were accused of "baby shaking". Barristers acting for the parents cast enough doubt on the medical evidence for the judge to refuse the local authority's request for a care order. Ian Peddie QC represented the mother.
Concerns about the child's welfare had first been raised when she was admitted to hospital after repeated vomiting and failing to feed four weeks after birth. An initial scan revealed subdural haematoma (SDH), which was confirmed by a subsequent MRI scan, which also revealed subarachnoid and intraventricular bleeding. The treating consultant paediatrician considered that shaking was a possible cause of the bleeding and made a referral to social services.
Social workers had applied to the High Court for a care order which could have taken the child away from her parents permanently. Prior to trial they voluntarily agreed to fostering with extended contact arrangements.
The expert consultant neuroradiologist and neurosurgeon both concluded that the symptoms presented did not fit with natural disease and so must have been caused by shaking. The expert paediatrician, however, believed that the SDH could have been birth related, as recent research has discovered that 50% of all babies are born with SDH which usually resolves naturally.
At the trial, the judge accepted that this is an area in which the boundaries of medicine are being tested, and that the court could not be satisfied that there had not been a natural cause to the bleeding. He therefore refused the local authority's request for a care order and the child was returned to her parents.
Decisions of this nature, where the court refuses to accept medical advice presented by expert witnesses, are extremely rare. No experts were able to positively support the parents' case, and so the decision rested on the uncertainty cast by the paediatrician. In addition, the judge stated that both parents were impressive, credible witnesses.
Without further scientific research and greater medical consensus, this case offers some hope to other parents and carers facing allegations of "baby shaking" in either the family or criminal courts. It also highlights circumstances in which the court can refuse to accept positive medical advice in situations of uncertainty.
In a word of advice to the Legal Aid Authority, the judge used his judgment, to stress that "shaking" cases involve highly complex medical evidence, and will usually require both a silk and junior barrister to represent each party in the proceedings. Despite repeated requests, the LAA had initially refused funding for a QC, and only agreed when the mother's legal team had threatened to judicially review their decision.
Ian Peddie QC led Dorian Day, and was instructed by Barbra Hecht of Hecht Child Law Practice.