Familes start appeals against care orders

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The Independent Online

Two mothers, who claim their children were wrongly taken into care after false accusations of abuse, began legal action at the Court of Appeal yesterday aimed at overturning the decisions .

Two mothers, who claim their children were wrongly taken into care after false accusations of abuse, began legal action at the Court of Appeal yesterday aimed at overturning the decisions .

Lawyers representing the two women say their children were removed after doctors diagnosed the mothers as suffering from Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, a condition which can drive parents to harm their children to win attention.

The hearing follows the ruling in the case of Angela Cannings, who had her convictions for the murder of her two children overturned after judges raised doubts about the reliability of the expert evidence. The ruling sparked a review of 250 similar murder convictions involving children under two.

Yesterday the two mothers, the first of hundreds to reach the courts, began their legal challenges to care orders made against their children, identified only as B and U. Today the Court of Appeal will also hear the first post-Cannings appeal by a mother convicted in the criminal courts. Margaret Smith, 38, was jailed for life last October after a jury at Leeds Crown Court convicted her of smothering her four-month-old son, Keith, with a pillow in 1994. Both cases are expected to set out the issues which need to be resolved by judges hearing similar appeals in the civil and criminal courts.

Andrew McFarlane, for the mother of child U, told the three judges yesterday that, until the Cannings judgment, the circumstances in his client's case were "in line with the accepted norm". He said: "There is no more draconian order than an adoption order in the family field and it is in a real sense a life sentence for the parent who loses a child through adoption."

The hearings, before a panel of judges headed by the president of the High Court family division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, involve two separate appeals in the civil division of the Court of Appeal.

They began on the same day that BBC Radio 4's Today programme reported that a leading consultant is facing investigation by the General Medical Council after parents complained that he wrongly diagnosed their children as victims of abuse. Professor David Southall, of North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke-in-Trent, is one of Britain's leading experts on Munchausen's.

Mr McFarlane told the Court of Appeal that the principles laid down in the Cannings case were equally applicable to proceedings in the family courts when medical diagnoses were being evaluated. The testimony of expert witnesses had to have "evidential validity", he said.

But Dame Elizabeth pointed out that, in the Cannings case, there was a conflict of evidence between two set of experts - one side saying death occurred from smothering and the other saying that the children could have been victims of cot death.

She said that, in one of yesterday's appeals, there was a consensus among experts as to the cause of the injury suffered by a child. What was a judge to do in such cases where the doctors were in agreement, she asked.

Judith Rowe QC, for the local authority in the case of the mother of child U, said the Cannings judgment did not "undermine" the decision reached by the judge in U's case. Cannings, she added, was a criminal appeal deciding whether a conviction was unsafe in the light of what the court described as important fresh evidence. It did not follow that parts of the Cannings judgment should be incorporated wholesale and without qualification into a different area of the law which applied different rules of evidence.

The important message which it brought into the arena of care proceedings was that when suspicion was raised and careful investigation followed, it was necessary to look at the evidence as a whole.