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29 APR 2015

Cumbria County Council v M & F (Application for Rehearing) [2015] EWFC 35

Cumbria County Council v M & F (Application for Rehearing) [2015] EWFC 35
(Family Court, Peter Jackson J, 24 April 2015)

Public law children – Application for rehearing – Further medical evidence following fact-finding hearing – Whether the case should be reopened for the new evidence to be examined

The full judgment is available below.

The father’s application for a rehearing of the fact-finding hearing regarding his daughter was allowed on the basis of new medical evidence and opinion.

Following the fact-finding hearing regarding the death of Poppi Worthington, a number of developments had come to light. On that basis the father sought to discharge the care orders made in relation to his other children and for a rehearing to take place. His application was supported by the guardian but was opposed by the mother and the local authority.

As a result of the fact-finding hearing the police commissioned further medical enquiries and opinions had been obtained from a pathologist, a histopathologist and a forensic examiner which diverged from those of the pathologists who gave evidence at the original hearing. In particular there were five post mortem appearances which caused concern.

The judge found that the evidence contained matters of mixed fact and opinion which deserved further consideration. It contained an alternative unifying hypothesis which did not receive the degree of attention that was now being paid to it. Significant further enquiry was needed.

Although the circumstances in which a court will reopen established findings of fact were rare the recent evidence in this case was of central importance to the family. The children needed an accurate understanding of what happened to their sister. It was possible that a further hearing may lead to a different conclusion. There was a serious issue to determine in light of the further opinions.

Case No: CA13C000119
Neutral Citation Number: [2015] EWFC 35

24 April 2015

Before :

Sitting at the Civil Justice Centre, Manchester

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Between :

Cumbria County Council


(1st Respondent)
(2nd Respondent)
The Children (by their Children’s Guardian)
3rd Respondents

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Karl Rowley QC and Jenny Scully (instructed by Livingstons Solicitors) for the Father
Jane Cross QC and Peter Rothery (instructed by Cumbria County Council) for the Local Authority
Gillian Irving QC and Stephen Bedford (instructed by Denby Co Solicitors) for the Mother
Janet Bazley QC and Carly Henley (instructed by Bendles Solicitors) for the Children’s Guardian

Hearing date 23 April 2015 Judgment date 24 April 2015

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Mr Justice Peter Jackson

[1] On 28 March 2014, I gave a judgment in care proceedings. In it, I made findings of fact about the circumstances surrounding the death of Poppi Worthington in December 2012. The judgment also raised issues about the manner in which her death had been investigated.

[2] There have subsequently been a number of developments. In October 2014, the family proceedings ended with the making of orders in relation to the other children of the family. In the same month a coroner’s inquest was held in circumstances that provoked criticism. Steps now have been taken to secure a fresh inquest. A Serious Case Review is also in progress. A reporting restriction order, the current version being dated 14 January 2015, is in force. On 16 March 2015, Cumbria Constabulary announced that criminal proceedings are not to be taken against either of Poppi’s parents. On 30 March 2015, I directed that a hearing should be listed to consider an anticipated application by the father that the findings of the fact contained in the March 2014 judgment should be reconsidered. I decided that the fact-finding judgment should not be published in the meantime.

[3] The father’s application to discharge the care orders in relation to his children, and for a contact order, was issued on 7 April and heard on 23 April. The application, which amounted to an application for a rehearing was supported by the Children's Guardian, but opposed by the local authority and the mother. Having considered the parties' submissions, I gave my decision that there should be a further examination of the medical evidence at a hearing later this year. I now give reasons. In the circumstances, I will say no more than is necessary to explain my conclusion to those who did not argue for it.

[4] At the original hearing, the main medical evidence came from three pathologists. Dr Alison Armour, Dr Stephanie Bitetti and Dr Stephen Leadbeatter and from Dr Victoria Evans, a paediatrician. Their opinions coincided in some respects and diverged in others. I substantially accepted the evidence of Dr Armour.

[5] As a result of the fact-finding judgment, the police commissioned further medical enquiries. Opinions have now been given by Dr Nathaniel Cary (pathologist) and Dr Liina Kiho (histopathologist). Their views diverge in a number of respects from those of Dr Armour. An opinion has also been obtained from Dr Victoria Aziz, who is described as a forensic examiner.

[6] In their submissions, the parties have analysed the extent to which the more recent pathology evidence differs from that which was given that the original hearing, with reference to five particular post-mortem appearances.

[7] On behalf of the father and the Guardian, it is argued that the additional medical evidence raises issues of sufficient importance to warrant a rehearing. On behalf of the local authority and the mother, it is said that the issues are ones of nuance and interpretation that do not amount to a reason for reopening the matter. It is also said that the process by which the new evidence was gathered may have had shortcomings.

[8] In my view, the further evidence contains matters of mixed fact and opinion that deserve further consideration. In particular, it contains an alternative unifying hypothesis for the post-mortem appearances. That hypothesis was not overlooked at the earlier hearing, but it did not receive the degree of attention that is now being paid to it. Arguments about any consequences arising from the process by which the further opinions were obtained cannot be resolved without significant further inquiry, and a decision on the father’s application should not in my view be postponed for that to occur.

[9] The circumstances in which the court will reopen established findings of fact are rare. There is a public and private interest in litigation being final. The impact of a renewal of the litigation on the family members can be significant, as is undoubtedly the case here. Further proceedings are also expensive, in this case to the public, and consume court time that is needed for other cases.

[10] There are two ways in which an application for a further hearing can be made. The first is by way of an application to appeal out of time on the basis of fresh evidence. The second is by way of an application to the trial court for a rehearing. In this case, the latter course has been selected. It is argued on behalf of the mother that the former course would have been better. However, it is acknowledged that the appeal route would be likely to lengthen the overall process in circumstances where the earliest resolution is in the interests of the children. In the overall circumstances, and bearing in mind that this court has had an ongoing involvement since the conclusion of the care proceedings because of issues of publicity, I find that the father's application is appropriately made here.

[11] His choice of venue will have been influenced by the way in which the tests that apply in each court have been articulated. An application to appeal out of time engages the well-known test in Ladd v Marshall (1954) 1 WLR 1489. The new evidence must be such that it would probably have an important influence on the result of the case, though it need not be decisive, and it must be apparently credible, though it need not be incontrovertible. An application to the first instance court for a rehearing engages the guidance contained in paragraph 33 of the decision of the President in Re ZZ (Children) [2014] EWFC 9 where he endorsed the words of Mrs Justice Hale in an earlier decision:

"Above all, the court is bound to want to consider whether there is any reason to think that a rehearing of the issue will result in any different finding from that in the earlier trial. By this I mean something more than the mere fact that different judges might on occasions reach different conclusions on the same evidence ... The court will want to know ... whether there is any new evidence or information casting doubt on the accuracy of the original findings."

To this, the President added that

"one does not get beyond the first stage unless there is some real reason to believe that the earlier findings require revisiting. Mere speculation and hope are not enough. There must be solid grounds for challenge. But for my own part I would be disinclined to set the test any higher."

[12] There may be cases in which the formulations of the tests on appeal and at first instance might make a difference to the outcome, but I do not consider that this is one of them. The court’s overriding objective is to deal with cases justly, having regard to welfare issues involved, and that is my goal.

[13] The considerations that persuade me that justice requires that a further hearing should take place are these:

(i) The finding of fact addressed in the more recent evidence is of central importance for the family. It is of a kind that determines the children's future and is of great significance to the parents.

(ii) It will be important for the children to have an accurate understanding of what happened to their sister. The more recent evidence has the effect of raising doubt about the existing conclusion. The children’s welfare requires that the matter is resolved.

(iii) The more recent evidence, like the previous medical evidence, comes from a reputable source; further, it was commissioned in response to concerns expressed by this court about the earlier police enquiry.

(iv) While the outcome of a further hearing cannot be foreseen, it is possible that a review of the overall medical evidence may lead to a different conclusion. It may, or it may not. What can be said is that there is a serious issue to determine in the light of the further opinions.

[14] As to the scope of the further hearing, oral evidence is likely to be limited to medical testimony. I am unlikely to admit other oral evidence, unless a particular matter needs clarification. Transcripts and notes of evidence from the earlier proceedings will be gathered. A meeting of the doctors should be held in order to establish points of agreement and disagreement. The parties will present a draft directions order, having made further enquiries.

[15] At an earlier stage, the father submitted that any rehearing should take place before a different judge. That submission was not in the end pursued, in my view correctly. There are considerable advantages in judicial continuity in a case of this complexity.

[16] The outcome is that the further hearing will take place in the autumn. Once the parties have had an opportunity to take stock, there will be a further directions hearing.

[17] As to the publication of the original judgment, I remain on view that this is not appropriate at this point in time, for the reasons given on 30 March. However, I have expressed a provisional view that it should be published at or around the time that the rehearing begins, rather than it being withheld until that hearing ends. There is a proper public interest in the course that these proceedings, and the other procedures surrounding Poppi’s death, have taken. The media will be able to describe matters more effectively if the original findings can be described at the point when they come under review. I have also raised the possibility of the further hearing taking place in public. I will hear from the parties and the media about these issues at the next directions hearing.

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