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Southall loses appeal against being struck off

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.b2144 (Published 26 May 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2144
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    The paediatrician David Southall has lost his legal challenge to a decision to strike him off the UK medical register for accusing a mother without justification of drugging and murdering her 10 year old son.

    At the High Court in London Mr Justice Blake said that Dr Southall’s conduct was “truly shocking” and “an abuse of the role of consultant and expert instructed in ongoing litigation.”

    Dr Southall was appealing against a finding of serious professional misconduct by a General Medical Council fitness to practise panel and an order striking him off the register in December 2007 (BMJ 2007;335:1174, doi:10.1136/bmj.39420.690845.DB).

    Described by the judge as “a consultant paediatrician of national and international renown,” Dr Southall was a leading specialist in the field of child protection in the 1980s and 1990s. But he faced a barrage of complaints by parents, who accused him of overzealousness.

    In a separate GMC case he was found guilty of serious professional misconduct in 2004 and barred from child protection work for accusing Stephen Clark of murdering two of his baby sons after seeing him interviewed on television (BMJ 2004;329:366 doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7462.366-a). Mr Clark’s wife, Sally, was serving a life sentence at the time for murdering the boys but was later cleared on appeal.

    In the latest case Mr Justice Blake upheld the GMC panel’s finding that in 1998 Dr Southall had accused Mandy Morris, whose 10 year old son Lee was found hanged in an apparent suicide, of drugging and hanging him herself. He was interviewing her as the basis of a report for care proceedings involving her surviving son, and he argued that he had not been accusing her but outlining a possible scenario for what might have happened.

    The judge also upheld the panel’s two other findings: that Dr Southall had sent a copy of a letter voicing concerns about child protection to an unnamed paediatrician at the child’s local hospital, in breach of confidentiality, and that he had kept special case files on some children that were not sufficiently signposted in the general records.

    Those findings would not have justified erasure from the register, the judge said. But the treatment of Mrs Morris was “of a different order together.” He said, “It is truly shocking that it should have occurred.”

    Dr Southall doubted her account of how she had found her son hanging from a curtain pole by a belt. He questioned whether the pole would have borne the weight of a 30 kg child and thought that hanging was an unusual form of suicide for a 10 year old.

    He interviewed Mrs Morris in the presence of the social worker who was proposing to take her younger son into care without warning Mrs Morris in advance that the social worker would be there and without giving her the opportunity to object or to be accompanied by her solicitor.

    The judge said that the load bearing capacity of curtain poles was outside Dr Southall’s professional capacity. The paediatrician was wrong in thinking that hanging was an unusual method among the small number of 10 year olds who kill themselves. His hypothesis that Lee may have been drugged was “the sheerest speculation,” the judge said, and all the evidence pointed to suicide.

    The letter from the county council solicitor asking Dr Southall to make an expert assessment in the care proceedings instructed him to “ensure that your opinion is confined to the medical issues.” He had disregarded this and “was speculating on non-medical matters in an offensive manner entirely inconsistent with the status of independent expert,” added the judge.

    Public confidence in the science of expert assessment in child protection cases “would be undermined if egregious behaviour of the kind under consideration here, when combined with the lack of insight into or acknowledgment of its nature and extent, was considered to be compatible with continued registration as a medical practitioner,” the judge concluded.

    Dr Southall said he was “disappointed” but thanked his family, friends, and legal team for their support. The organisation Professionals against Child Abuse warned that the judgment would have “further serious and negative effects” on the willingness of doctors to do child protection work.

    The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said in a statement: “Dr David Southall is a highly respected paediatrician and academic with an excellent record of published peer reviewed work.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b2144

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