A consultant paediatrician, who was struck off the medical register after he allegedly accused a grieving mother of murdering her son, has won the latest round in his legal battle to save his career.
But Dr David Southall remains off the register after three Court of Appeal judges ruled that the General Medical Council's fitness to practice panel should give more detailed reasons for finding him guilty of serious professional misconduct in 2007.
Dr Southall appeared before the GMC after he accused a mother of drugging and murdering her 10-year-old son, who was found hanging from a curtain rail at his home in 1996.
The consultant, who was based at London's Royal Brompton Hospital, had been appointed by a family court as an expert witness and interviewed the mother, identified only as Mrs M, in the presence of a social worker. Dr Southall denied the woman's claim that he accused her of murder, insisting he had raised it as one possible scenario to explain her son's death. His account was backed by the social worker but the GMC chose to believe the evidence of the mother. The case alarmed other paediatricians working in the field of child protection because it appeared to demolish a key part of their defence against false accusations – the presence of an independent professional witness.
Yesterday, the appeal court found the GMC panel had not given adequate reasons why it chose to believe Mrs M's evidence over that of Dr Southall and the social worker. Lord Justice Leveson said: "I would allow this appeal, although I must make it clear that this conclusion is not a condemnation of Mrs M or a vindication for Dr Southall and should not be seen as either. On any showing, the panel will have to consider what penalties should be imposed in relation to the other proved charges."
The GMC said it understood that the ruling meant its panel would have to provide more detailed reasons for its determination, but the judgment was "complex" and it would "need to consider the issues it raises".
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said the case raised an important principle: that a paediatrician voicing child protection concerns would, as Lord Justice Leveson had put it, be "damned if he does and damned if he doesn't", and that argument was "supported by statements from prominent paediatricians". The college said there was "a genuine and widespread sense of puzzlement" among members that the GMC preferred a parent's evidence even when a paediatrician's account was corroborated by a second professional.
In a separate case in 2004, the GMC suspended Dr Southall from child protection work for three years over his role in the case of Sally Clark, a mother wrongly jailed over the deaths of her two sons. On the basis of a television interview, the consultant accused Mrs Clark's husband Steve of murdering the boys.