A conflict of interest and the effect on professionals of dealing with child abuse

Family Law|September 26th 2016

Having repeated here just the other day that I don’t usually comment upon public law children cases (i.e. child care cases), I’m now going to break that rule again.

The case I want to talk about is one that took place in my local county court, where I last dealt with a child care case myself. It is the case Kent County Council v S & M (Fact Finding re multiple bruises & healing fractures), which took place back in July, although the judgment was only published last week. As that case title suggests, the judgment was about an investigation into the cause of what Her Honour Judge Cameron called “a very worrying catalogue of injuries” sustained by the child involved, a two year old girl, whilst in the care of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. I will not, however, be commenting upon the entire judgment – I’m not sure I am qualified to do that. Instead, I want to comment upon two matters raised in the case.

The first matter related to a conflict of interest that arose in relation to the solicitor acting for the child’s mother. As Judge Cameron explained, she was actually the same person who had represented the mother’s boyfriend during proceedings involving his own young son, and had also actually been a neighbour of the couple and witnessed with her own eyes some violent behaviour by the boyfriend to the mother. This, said Judge Cameron, was “a matter of concern”.

She went on to explain that:

“Because a conflict of professional interest really seemed to have been generated by all of that it was agreed that a new firm of Solicitors for the mother needed to become involved forthwith and that occurred.”

It’s not often that a conflict of interest situation arises in a reported judgment, and I certainly don’t recall coming across it previously in connection with a child care case. Obviously, lawyers should always give consideration to the issue of whether there is a conflict of interest, and should disqualify themselves from acting if there is any possibility of a conflict existing. To be honest, here it seems quite remarkable that this didn’t happen. Still, the judgment should act as a useful reminder for lawyers in future.

The second matter relates to some comments made by Judge Cameron in relation to the effect of dealing with cases of child abuse upon the professionals involved – here, specifically, the social worker.

Referring to the “panoply of bruises” on the child’s body, Judge Cameron said:

“The high calibre Social Worker in this case, Miss Hannah Taylor, involved from the 4th January 2016, plainly and understandably was emotionally affected by the state of this little girl, as was the grandmother, and indeed as any right thinking person would be. She told the Court that the size of the bruising was shocking to her as someone who deals with injuries to children in her usual employment. I have referred already in fact to her comment that in her view the pictures simply do not do justice to the injuries on a two year old little girl who was covered head to foot in bruises. The grandmother echoed that sentiment. Plainly Miss Taylor was haunted by this case which will stay with her for some time. I think that is true of other professionals in this case as well.”

I recall that the primary reason why I gave up doing child care work myself was the utterly depressing and disturbing evidence of child abuse I had to deal with. I found that very difficult, and concluded that I simply was not cut out to do that sort of work. I therefore have the utmost respect for those who do, and I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to them. To use Judge Cameron’s expression, no right-thinking person can do this sort of work without it affecting them, and we should be grateful that these professionals are prepared to endure such mental scarring, for the sake of the protection of our children.

As to the main judgment, Judge Cameron concluded by finding that the child had suffered non-accidental injuries, but she was not able to identify definitively who caused those injuries. However, both the mother and her boyfriend were within the ‘pool’ of possible perpetrators of the injuries.

The full report of Kent County Council v S & M can be found here.

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