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Court upholds GMC decision over Sally Clark case pathologist

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 15 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:1009
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Alan Williams, the consultant pathologist whose failure to disclose the results of microbiological tests on one of Sally Clark's two baby sons led to the quashing of her murder convictions, lost his High Court appeal last week against a finding of serious professional misconduct.

    Mrs Clark was convicted in 1999 of killing babies Christopher and Harry but was cleared on appeal in 2003 after spending three and a half years in prison. She died earlier this year at the age of 42. A coroner ruled this week that the cause of her death was acute alcohol intoxication.

    A General Medical Council fitness to practise panel found Dr Williams, aged 58, guilty of serious professional misconduct in 2005 for not disclosing the results of tests on her second son, Harry, at or before her trial. Dr Williams was banned from doing Home Office forensic pathology or coroners' work for three years, although he was allowed to continue working as a consultant histopathologist at Macclesfield General Hospital, in Cheshire.

    His lawyers appealed on a range of issues, including delays in bringing his case before the GMC and procedural unfairness. James Turner QC argued that Dr Williams had been made a “scapegoat” for the failings of many others and failings in the criminal justice system.

    But Mr Justice Davis ruled last week, “In my judgment this appeal fails on essentially every ground advanced. There was no procedural unfairness giving rise to injustice; nor were the findings and conclusions of the panel wrong.”

    Mrs Clark's family said after the coroner's ruling that she “never fully recovered from the effects of this appalling miscarriage of justice.”

    She was cleared after a second appeal, when previously unreported microbiological results came to light. They showed the presence of Staphylococcus aureus at eight sites of the baby's body, including cerebrospinal fluid, raising the possibility that Harry died from natural causes.

    Dr Williams told the GMC panel that he had not considered the tests to be relevant and that if the defence had wished to see them, they should have asked for them.

    He was initially struck off the Home Office register of accredited pathologists, but the sanction was replaced by an 18 month suspension from the register after a successful appeal.

    Mr Justice Davis accepted that a considerable number of experts agreed with Dr Williams's opinion that the test results did not show that Harry Clark had died from natural causes. But it was “troubling” that, by forming a personal opinion, albeit a reasonable opinion, that a report was irrelevant as to the cause of death, a pathologist could “self certify” the report as entirely irrelevant for comment or disclosure in potential criminal proceedings, the judge said.

    He stressed that neither the GMC panel nor the High Court was concerned with “why or how” Mrs Clark's babies had died, but with whether the proceedings against Dr Williams had been fair. “Just why and how Christopher and Harry Clark came to meet their deaths will, presumably, now never be known,” he added.

    The GMC said, “We are pleased that the finding of serious professional misconduct has been upheld, demonstrating the GMC's commitment to ensuring patient safety and the public interest.”

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