Mr Justice Moor has today published his judgment about the death of Elsie (known to her biological family as Shayla). You can read the judgment here: The County Council of the City and County of Cardiff -v- Matthew Scully-Hicks and Others.
The judgment was written in December 2016 following a family court trial. The family court had to decide whether one of Elsie’s adoptive parents had inflicted her fatal injuries and whether either had failed to protect her from harm. It had to make those decisions because safe decisions needed to be made for Elsie’s adoptive sibling “C”. Decisions about C could not wait for the criminal trial – at the time of the decision, some 7 months after Elsie’s death, the police had not even made a decision whether they would charge Matthew Scully-Hicks with any crime in connection with her death. So the family court held a fact finding hearing to provide a factual basis to go forward on, for C.
In the family court a judge can “find” that an allegation is proved if it is more likely than not (this is called the balance of probabilities), but as it happens Mr Justice Moor concluded that he had no doubt that Elsie’s injuries were inflicted by Matthew Scully-Hicks. Later, the jury in the criminal trial came to the same conclusion.
It is not completely clear whether or not the local authority who brought the care proceedings suggested that either Craig or Matthew could have been responsible for inflicting the injuries, but it appears that they only sought a finding of infliction against Matthew, and that they asked the court to find that Craig had failed in protecting Elsie. From the judgment it appears that the Guardian of C did not seek a failure to protect finding.
Why is this judgment only just being published?
As the judgment itself explains, this judgment could not be published whilst it was possible there would be a criminal trial because it would have risked prejudicing that trial, which could have led to the crown being unable to pursue a conviction for Elsie’s death. The judge explains that he made clear that the judgment would be withheld and a reporting restriction order put in place only whilst a decision about criminal charges was being made, and if the charges were laid only until the trial had concluded. Now, good to his word, Mr Justice Moor has published his judgment, recognising that it is in the public interest that he should do so.
Why was the judgment published at all – does it tell us anything we didn’t know?
Well, it tells us that both the family and criminal courts heard extensive evidence and reached the same conclusion to a high standard. This is not always the case – in the case of Ellie Butler the family and criminal courts reached contradictory conclusions in relation to Ellie’s head injury and when her father’s conviction was quashed the family court held a rehearing and exonerated Ben Butler of injuries it had previously decided he had inflicted. Ben Butler went on to murder Ellie. The second time around both the family court and the criminal courts reached the same conclusion.
Perhaps more importantly this judgment tells us that Craig Scully-Hicks was cleared of harming Elsie, and of knowing about what was happening or failing to protect her – professionals had not spotted any warning signs and there was no reason to treat Craig any differently. The evidence supported the theory that Matthew Scully-Hicks was a Jekyll and Hyde character that even his own husband had not seen the other side of. He separated from Matthew Scully-Hicks in late 2016 and according to the judgment is devastated by what has happened. The judge said :
I have therefore come to the clear conclusion that I should exonerate Craig of any failure to protect Elsie. There is nothing he could or should have done but I fear he may find that difficult to accept.
The judgment also tells us in a post script that the text messages from Matthew calling Elsie unpleasant names and which have been referred to in press coverage had not been shown to the family court. It appears from press coverage of the criminal trial that some of these were sent to friends and some to Craig Scully-Hicks. Text messages were also of crucial importance in the Ellie Butler case. That too was a case where there was a surviving sibling and a fact finding judgment was withheld until the criminal trial was finished (see here).
The Judgment also makes clear that it was the family court judge who instigated the process of making sure that Elsie’s biological family were told of her death, and it appears that took place in early 2017. Until now it was unclear quite what had happened regarding this issue, and the answer appears to be that nothing happened until prompted by the judge.
Finally, the judgment makes the point that the fact that Elsie’s adoptive parents were gay had nothing to do with anything. It is sad that such a point needed to be made, but it is quite right that it has been.
Does the judgment tell us whether any agency was at fault?
No. It raises the possibility – but does not suggest that any agency was at fault. In fact, from the information in the judgment there is no obvious failure on the part of professionals identifiable, and most decisions made appear to have been reasonably made at the time on the basis of the information known. The judge concluded that nobody was able to see the other side of Matthew Scully-Hicks However, the judgment makes clear that it will be for others to scutinise the professionals involved with Elsie’s care and adoption, via an Extended and Concise Child Practice Review (the Welsh version of a Serious Case Review).
So what has happened to C?
The judgment doesn’t tell us, although from the conclusions reached there would seem to be no reason for C to continue to be separated from Craig Scully-Hicks, his/her adoptive father.
Feature Pic : Ink Stained Wretches by Jeff Eaton on Flickr (creative commons – thanks!)