Doctors should pay for falsely accusing parents of abuse

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The Independent Online

Most people in this country approve of doctors and disapprove of lawyers, and so are suspicious of excessive claims for compensation when the medical profession gets it wrong.

Most people in this country approve of doctors and disapprove of lawyers, and so are suspicious of excessive claims for compensation when the medical profession gets it wrong.

But it seems strange that doctors should be protected from being sued for damages in just one kind of case.

That is what the Court of Appeal reaffirmed yesterday, sticking to the principle that doctors - and social workers - cannot be sued for damages by parents wrongly accused of sexually abusing their children.

The logic of this is that cases of child abuse would be less likely to be identified if professionals feared they might be answerable in court for their diagnoses. Yet their argument is undermined because children who are wrongly diagnosed as suffering from sexual abuse can sue for damages. They ruled that doctors and social workers owe a duty of care to children, but not to parents.

This does not make sense. A false diagnosis of sexual abuse inflicts terrible psychological damage on the child concerned - especially as they are bound to be taken into care. But the whole family is likely to be affected, not least the parent who is falsely accused. Since the Cleveland case in the 1980s, everyone should be painfully aware of the costs of making a false diagnosis.

Yesterday's ruling leaves the law unbalanced, although this may be more for Parliament than for the courts. Doctors have a statutory duty to report suspected abuse, and face penalties if they fail to do so. But if they wrongly diagnose abuse, the damages are limited to those suffered by the child.

Although people may recoil from extending the compensation culture, surely doctors and social workers should be liable for the full costs of getting their judgements wrong either way? (It might also help get those judgements right if the secrecy of family courts were reduced, but that is a separate issue.)

When yesterday's case moves to the House of Lords, it is to be hoped that the law lords will ensure that, just as a child whose abuse was not identified but should have been can sue for damages, so can a parent or other adult falsely accused of sexual abuse.

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