Family courts hit the mainstream news headlines this week. Here is a brief summary of transparency related matters.
Dr Waney Squier and expertise on non-accidental head injuries and babies
The esoteric subject of an expert witness in the family courts came up, because the Medical Practitioners Tribunals Service had just announced that the expert in question, Dr Waney Squier, had been found to have been in breach of her duties to the court. Dr Squier is a paediatric neuropathologist at Sir John Radcliffe Hospital who has been called as an expert witness in a range of court cases featuring the extremely troubling and complex issue of the cause of death or of serious injury to an infant’s brain.
Having not heard Dr Squier’s name for a while, I thought I would search for her name on BAILLI, rather than Google, as an exercise in the availability of published judgments that might help a lay person better understand a news story about family justice. The search resulted in 13 cases, between 2004 and 2015 (but these include criminal cases, not just family courts, and one case brought by Dr Squier herself). The most famous case is R v Harris and others, four appeals in 2005 against murder or manslaughter of infants, where the medical expert witnsesses could not agree. The most recent published judgment where Dr Squier was called as an expert relates to a claim of injury through amnioscentesis.
There is a very lengthy judgment from January 2015 in the High Court following Dr Squier bringing an action for judiciai review against the GMC about the procedures they were following regarding a complaint received that she had misled courts in six cases between 2006 and 2010. This judgment refers to serious judicial criticism of Dr Squier but notes that the complaint was made to the GMC on behalf of the police. According to the New Scientist, this was borne out of frustration felt by the police with losing a number of child abuse cases because of expert medical evidence on behalf of defendants. It should be noted that the media have quoted this week from lawyers and others who support Dr Squier’s position.
We hope to be able to comment when we see the published outcome of the hearing, due within 28 days. At present it is not clear how much this is an issue of criminal justice or of evidence in family courts.
Madonna’s ‘custody battle’
This story is the international superstar’s dispute with her British ex-husband Guy Ritchie about where their son Rocco (aged 15) will live, with her in New York or in London (where he currently is.) The newspapers seem to have fallen out of love with Madonna and there has been front-page mockery of her references to Rocco in her live stage performances. There is no BAILII judgment, but presumably the hearings in the High Court in London are part of an application in New York under the Hague Convention on International Abduction.
According to (£) The Times, Rocco has been attending court in person so would be aware that there are journalists present who have permission to write about what is happening. The Times describes the case as ‘shattering the conventions of the High Court’, which may be news to Mr Justice Macdonald, who is conducting the case in what looks like a perfectly normal way. The Times also describes the High Court as ‘well known for being one of the most secretive legal tribunals in the world’. Sadly, the media coverage to date has been vague on the law, not clarifying issues or processes for their readers.
EDITED 15 March 12.15 p.m.:
We have removed the next section of this post, that was on a third and unrelated case. It contained information about court proceedings on Bailii, and in the press, that we linked to on Sunday. The Bailii judgment and some of the online press stories have subsequently been removed and on enquiring of the Judicial Office, we were informed:
‘The judge has accepted the representations of two leading counsel, made through the parties’ solicitors, that they thought the hearing was in private and that “had it been otherwise they would have made representations that it should be in private.” In the light of those representations the judge has exercised a discretion to withdraw the judgment from Bailii, which was done this morning, and the hearing should now be treated as having been in private.’