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Feature Child Protection

Expert witnesses above the parapet

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 20 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3672
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9RJ
  1. ClareDyer{at}

    Clare Dyer reports on the problems facing doctors acting as witnesses in child protection cases and attempts to overcome them

    “My feeling was ‘why take the risk of losing my livelihood?’” This is how Terence Stephenson, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, explained why he decided five years ago to turn down requests to be an expert witness in cases where parents are suspected of making up or causing their child’s illness.

    He made the disclosure in a statement for the judges hearing the appeal of fellow paediatrician David Southall, who was appealing against being struck off by the General Medical Council for accusing a mother of murdering her son.

    Professor Stephenson told the court that in the 14 years before his decision he had given advice in 30 such cases. “What changed? In 2005, I was asked by the Medical Defence Union to assist in the preparation of the defence of Roy Meadow. In the same year I was reported for the second time to the GMC regarding a case of fabricated or induced illness.”

    The GMC ordered Roy Meadow, a former president of the royal college and a pioneer in the recognition of fabricated or induced illness, to be struck off for straying outside his expertise and giving misleading statistical evidence in the case of solicitor Sally Clark. She was jailed for murdering two of her babies but later freed on appeal. Although the High Court subsequently allowed Professor Meadow to stay on the medical register, his reputation among the general public has never recovered.

    In the years before the GMC took action against them, Meadow and Southall, the leading experts on fabricated or induced illness—then known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy—were targeted in a hate campaign mounted on behalf of parents who claimed …

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