Appeal Court overturns GMC's response to claims doctor accused mother of murder

A paediatrician and expert in the detection of child abuse was restored to the medical register yesterday after a long-running battle to clear his name.

David Southall, a consultant paediatrician formerly of the North Staffordshire hospital in Stoke-on-Trent, was struck off the medical register in 2007 after being found guilty of serious professional misconduct for allegedly accusing a mother of drugging and murdering her 10-year-old son, who died in 1996.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal overturned the General Medical Council's (GMC) decision, which was upheld last year by a High Court judge, arguing it was based on "flawed" reasoning.

Dr Southall had denied the mother's claim that he had accused her of murder, insisting that he had raised it as one possible scenario to explain her son's death. His account was backed up by a social worker who had been present during the interview, but the GMC panel chose to believe the evidence of the mother.

Speaking yesterday, Dr Southall, who now devotes his time to international medical aid work, said the last two years had been very hard. "I have been sitting there watching terrible things happening [to patients in developing countries in urgent need] and I haven't been able to do anything because I was not on the medical register. I won't be returning to NHS practice but I am going back on the medical register for the sake of my international work."

The case alarmed the paediatric community and became a cause célèbre among those involved in child protection because it appeared to demolish a key part of their defence against false accusations – the presence of an independent professional witness. Yesterday they claimed vindication and accused the GMC of "harassment" of child protection doctors.

It is the second time the GMC has been overruled by the courts in cases in which prominent paediatricians have been struck off over issues of child protection. In 2005, Sir Roy Meadow, a former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and the creator of the term "Munchausen syndrome by proxy", was struck off after claiming that the chances of two natural unexplained cot deaths occurring in the same family was 73 million to one.

He was giving evidence in the case of Sally Clark, the solicitor jailed in 1999 for murdering her two sons but who was exonerated on appeal in 2003. The figure was disputed by the Royal Statistical Society and other experts, but the High Court ruled that, even though the evidence was mistaken, it was given honestly and should not have led to a finding of serious professional misconduct.

The medical pressure group Professionals Against Child Abuse (Paca), which has campaigned on behalf of Sir Roy and Dr Southall, demanded yesterday that the GMC apologise to both men for the disciplinary actions "which have so unjustly damaged their reputations and careers".

"Paca considers that the GMC has been too readily influenced by a skillful and hostile media campaign undertaken by a small number of parents and their advocates involved in alleged child protection cases," it said.

The Royal College of Paediatrics, which two years ago voted to express its concern at the GMC's actions, said yesterday: "We have repeatedly argued that nothing should deter professionals from acting in the best interests of vulnerable children. We agree that cases such as this have caused considerable concern in the paediatric community."

The GMC said it would take immediate steps to resolve the outstanding issues in the case, including the question of what penalty, if any, it should apply for the remaining charges which were found proved against Dr Southall, including his keeping of special case files separate from the main hospital records.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: "There is no doubt that this case has caused considerable concern within the paediatric community. We will convene an expert group to review the guidance for paediatricians who practise in this critically important area of healthcare."