'Struck off' infant deaths expert wins appeal

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The Independent Online

Professor Sir Roy Meadow today won his court battle over an order to have him struck off for giving mistaken evidence in the Sally Clark infant deaths murder case.

A High Court judge ruled that not only was the medical disciplinary panel's finding of serious professional misconduct unjustified, it had not right to pursue the complaint in the first place.

He said expert witnesses who give evidence to courts must be immune from any disciplinary action - save in exceptional circumstances - so that they are not deterred from coming forward.

His findings were welcomed by Professor Meadow and professional bodies.

Professor Meadow's testimony helped convict Mrs Clark of murdering her two children.

When the verdict was later quashed in the Court of Appeal, her father complained to the General Medical Council that the professor's evidence amounted to serious professional misconduct.

The 73-year-old professor was found guilty last July by the General Medical Council of serious professional misconduct following a finding by its Fitness to Practise Panel that his conduct was "fundamentally incompatible with what is expected by the public from a registered medical practitioner".

Mr Justice Collins said Prof Meadow had made one mistake in his evidence - he misunderstood and misinterpreted the statistics.

"It was a mistake, as the panel (FPP) accepted, that was easily and widely made.

"It may be proper to have criticised him for not disclosing his lack of expertise, but that does not justify a finding of serious professional misconduct."

But he also ruled that all witnesses giving evidence in good faith, although the testimony may be wrong, are protected from civil prosecution and disciplinary action.

Mr Justice Collins said it was "quite unnecessary" to erase from the medical register someone like Professor Meadow who he described as a first-class paediatrician to whom many families owed much over his dealing with their children.

Prof Meadow, who was out of the country today, appealed against the decision of the GMC and its punishment after being condemned for his written and oral evidence at Mrs Clark's criminal trial.

He was acclaimed as an expert in the field of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids) and how such deaths could be differentiated from children harmed by their parents - so-called Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy.

He gave evidence that the risk of two infants dying naturally of Sids in a household such as Mrs Clark's was effectively one in 73 million.

The GMC's Fitness to Practise Panel said he had "strayed outside his area of expertise" and that his evidence on the probability of a second infant death from natural causes was "erroneous and misleading and in breach of his duty as an expert and by providing such evidence was guilty of serious professional misconduct".

Mrs Clark was found guilty in 1999 of murdering her sons, Christopher and Harry, but had her conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2003.

Prof Meadow, of Woodgate Lane, Leeds, also gave evidence in two other high-profile child murder trials in which mothers were wrongfully convicted.

Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony were jailed for murdering their children but later cleared by the Court of Appeal.

Prof Meadow said of the ruling: "This is an important decision for paediatricians and all doctors, nurses, teachers and other professionals who may have to express difficult and sometimes unpopular opinions in the course of giving evidence in court.

"They should be able to do so without the fear of prosecution by the General Medical Council or other professional regulators."

Dr Christine Tomkins, deputy chief executive of the Medical Defence Union which has supported Prof Meadow throughout the case, said: "Today's judgment is welcome and important.

"It is in the public interest that doctors should be able to provide expert opinion in cases where there are allegations of child abuse without fear that they will be the subject of a finding of serious professional misconduct for expressing a genuinely held belief."

A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said: "If the original decision had stood there is a real danger that doctors across all specialities would have become reluctant to undertake vital expert witness work.

"Professor Meadow's work during his long and prominent career includes the recognition of Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII), formerly known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.

"His work has undoubtedly saved the lives of many children.

"We hope that today's decision will give confidence back to paediatricians, whose responsibility and role is so important in the protection of children and who can contribute so much in the position of expert witnesses."

The judge had highlighted the concerns of health experts over giving evidence after the Professor Meadow's case.

The judge said that there was "no doubt" that the action taken against Prof Meadow had had a damaging effect because it had increased the reluctance of medical professionals to give evidence.

He said although this appeal involved medical practitioners, the chance that they may be disciplined to the extent of losing their livelihood applied to other professionals who give expert evidence to courts.

"There can be no doubt that the administration of justice has been seriously damaged by the decision of the FPP in this case and the damage will continue unless it is made clear that such proceedings need not be feared by the expert witness."

In a statement, the General Medical Council said the judgment would extend the "immunity" of experts in court proceedings placing them beyond the reach of watchdogs.

"We agree with Mr Justice Collins that it cannot be in the public interest if doctors and other professionals are inhibited from giving evidence honestly and truthfully," the GMC said.

"However, where there has been serious judicial criticism we have sought to act to protect the public interest from experts who fall significantly short of accepted standards."

The spokesperson said the judgment effectively granted an immunity that, hitherto, has not been recognised in law.