The appellant parents (P) appealed against the decision of the Court of Appeal that their claims for damages for psychiatric injury against doctors or social workers (the healthcare professionals) who had wrongly determined that P had abused or harmed their children had to be dismissed on public policy grounds. P’s claims were based on allegations that their children’s illness or injuries had been negligently misdiagnosed as having a non-accidental origin and that as a result of that misdiagnosis P had suffered a recognised form of psychiatric injury and in some cases financial loss. P submitted that the healthcare professionals’ duty to exercise due skill and care in the investigation of suspected abuse extended to the child’s parents as primary carers as well as to the child.
The healthcare professionals responsible for investigating suspected child abuse did not owe the person suspected of having committed the abuse a duty resulting in damages if they carried out that investigation carelessly but in good faith. (Lord Bingham dissenting on this point). It was however accepted by the respondents that they did owe a duty of care to the alleged child victim in such cases. At common law, alleged interference with family life did not justify providing a suspected parent with a higher level of protection than other suspected perpetrators. This was because there was a conflict between the interests of the parents and the child where the parent was the suspected abuser. Healthcare professionals, acting in good faith in what they believed were the best interests of the child, should not be subject to potentially conflicting duties when deciding whether a child might have been abused. Sullivan v Moody (2001) considered. The appropriate level of protection for a parent suspected of abusing his child was that clinical and other investigations must be conducted in good faith. That afforded suspected parents a similar level of protection to that afforded generally to persons suspected of committing crimes. Furthermore, the complaints procedure under the Children Acts 1980 and 1989 offered an adequate remedy to parents in the same position as the appellants. The respondents did not owe the same duty of care to P as to the children since P were not in sufficient proximity to give rise to a duty of care. As the Court of Appeal held, there were cogent reasons of public policy for holding that no common law duty of care should be owed to P and that it was accordingly not fair, just and reasonable to impose such a duty, Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman (1990)