Expert medical opinions must be open to challenge

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The Independent Online

The review of the role of medical experts in child abuse cases announced yesterday by the Children's minister, Margaret Hodge, is overdue. A succession of court rulings over the past 18 months in which women have been falsely accused of killing their children has gravely damaged faith in the trustworthiness of independent experts in these tragic cases. And this week's condemnation by the General Medical Council of the paediatrician David Southall who, on the basis of evidence gleaned from a television interview, accused a man of killing his baby son, has underlined the need to restore public confidence in the procedures for dealing with such cases.

The review of the role of medical experts in child abuse cases announced yesterday by the Children's minister, Margaret Hodge, is overdue. A succession of court rulings over the past 18 months in which women have been falsely accused of killing their children has gravely damaged faith in the trustworthiness of independent experts in these tragic cases. And this week's condemnation by the General Medical Council of the paediatrician David Southall who, on the basis of evidence gleaned from a television interview, accused a man of killing his baby son, has underlined the need to restore public confidence in the procedures for dealing with such cases.

The system needs to be re-balanced. Too much weight has been placed on the opinions of experts, such as Professor Roy Meadow, who have often used emotive language to get their point across in court. Such expert opinions are often taken as authoritative. If they conclude that a baby has died due to injuries inflicted by a parent then, more often than not, the jury reaches the same conclusion. This is in sharp contrast to civil cases, in which the opinion of any sort of expert is often treated with a greater degree of scepticism.

Of course, it is in no one's interests that we create a system whereby the burden of proof becomes so heavy that no parents are jailed for abuse to their children, or where it becomes almost impossible to remove children from families for their own safety.

Abuse does occur and Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, in which mothers supposedly harm their own children to get attention for themselves, has not been totally discredited as a theory. Investigations are already under way into the cases in which mothers have been imprisoned, on the basis of expert evidence, and the majority of verdicts that have been re-examined so far have been shown to be sound.

Nevertheless, public confidence can only be fully restored by a thorough investigation into how the criminal justice system operates in this intensely emotive area. While expert medical testimony will always play a role in such cases, it must never again be so uncritically accepted.

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