High Court judge Mrs Justice Pauffley criticised the contribution of expert witnesses in a recent adoption hearing.
The case of Re IA concerned a baby born in London to a couple in their mid-20s. Their previous child, called ‘KA’ in case reports, had died at the age of four months. After his death doctors discovered rib and leg injuries which were thought to have been inflicted deliberately, although no charges were brought. The father had a conviction for injuring his a son from a previous relationship and had no contact with him.
The woman fell pregnant again and the local authority launched care proceedings. It claimed the mother would not be able to protect the new baby, because she was still reluctant to accept the idea that the father may have been responsible for the earlier child’s death. The new child, ‘IA’, was taken into foster care shortly after birth.
A few months later, the parents separated.
The London Borough of Croydon launched full adoption proceedings. However, the authority then changed its mind, after hearing from the boy’s maternal grandmother at the High Court, and recommended instead that residence be granted to the mother and grandmother, under a 12 month supervision order.
Mrs Justice Pauffley considered evidence relating to the father’s behaviour and concluded that he had inflicted the injuries which had contributed to their first child’s death. The father had been an unimpressive witness who had not been honest with the mother about his background. He admitted taking a manipulative approach to the people around him.
The mother could not be blamed for failing to protect the couple’s first child, or for not asking more questions of the father. The judgement contains a description of the mother’s experiences of the first child’s death:
“It was for her an “extremely lonely and alienating experience.” “Everyone around her had known her child had died but no one knew what to say.” She had “felt angry and upset that (her own) and KA’s privacy had been invaded when everyone came to watch the air ambulance landing in the local school so that he could be taken to hospital.” People, said the mother, “had not felt able to ask her how she was or how she was feeling.” She became aware she “was making people feel awkward just by being there and being sad.” She had stopped wanting to go out, wore sunglasses if she did to avoid eye contact and ‘pretended she was invisible.’ ”
She would always feel guilty about “letting her first son down”.
Mrs Justice Pauffley said she could not “find the mother culpable or deficient” and was “profoundly impressed by her ability to describe her feelings.”
The judge ordered twice year supervised contact only between IA and his father.
In her judgement, Mrs Justice Pauffley was very critical of the medical report submitted during the case by a consultant paediatrician called Dr Rylance. This had been unnecessarily lengthy, said the judge, running to 35 pages.
“On page 27 of his report, Dr Rylance turned to consider and answer the specific questions asked of him, referring as he did so to many of his earlier paragraphs, as relevant, and repeating their content…..In the 1980s and 1990s before it became the norm for experts (particularly paediatricians and psychologists) to produce absurdly lengthy reports, courts were routinely confronted with, for example, radiological reports in the form of letters which extended to about a page and a half…The modern way exemplified by Dr Rylance’s over-inclusive and doubtless expensive report is no longer acceptable. Experts must conform to the specifics of what is asked of them rather than, as here, provide something akin to a ‘paediatric overview.’ I struggle to recall a single instance when such expansive and all inclusive analysis has been of real utility in a case of this kind.”
Meanwhile, a social work report had been below the required standards. The report:
“…did not reflect the key principles which underpin the workings of the family justice system. I mention just three – first that wherever possible, consistent with their welfare needs, children deserve an upbringing within their natural families…; second, that the local authority’s duty should be to support and eventually reunite the family unless the risks are so high that the child’s welfare requires alternative provision …; and third that orders ratifying a care plan for adoption are “very extreme” only made when “necessary” for the protection of the children’s interests, which means “when nothing else will do”, “when all else fails.” Adoption “should only be contemplated as a last resort”…”