TAO MA v ST GEORGE’S HEALTHCARE NHS TRUST [2015] EWHC 1866 (QB)

A parent’s allegation of libel against hospital staff in making a safeguarding referral to children’s services following the parent’s visit to A&E with her daughter was dismissed.

The case concerned a mother who (with her partner) had taken her daughter to the A&E department at St. George’s Hospital with a cut to her forehead. Staff had reported that, throughout the visit, the mother demanded immediate treatment for her daughter but also repeatedly expressed the view that her daughter should be treated at a different hospital, despite her partner being content with the treatment available at St. George’s. Staff had described this inconsistency as “erratic” behaviour and recorded that she had shouted at staff and, when prevented from removing her daughter, assaulted a nurse.

Hospital staff reported these events to Children’s services via a safeguarding referral, expressing concern regarding the welfare of the child. Children’s services subsequently visited the family, found that the mother had a good relationship with her daughter and closed the case.

The parent alleged that the content of the referral was libellous and, further, that there was malice in the making of the statements.

It was held that the statements made in the referral were not libellous on the grounds of justification (truth). On the balance of the evidence the judge found that the statements contained in the referral about the parent’s behaviour during the visit to A&E were substantially true and that there was no malice on the part of hospital staff in the making of the statements. Further, and importantly, it was held that the raising of safeguarding concerns was legitimate and not libellous, despite the negative outcome of the subsequent investigation:

“I have little doubt that the staff who referred the incidents to the social workers were genuine in their concerns at her apparently irrational and erratic behaviour and its possible implications for her daughter’s welfare. Fortunately, nothing came of it and it was recognised upon closer investigation that she had a good relationship with her. That does not mean that the concerns were not genuine at the time they were expressed.

“Subsequent events, including the outcome of any investigation by the relevant people, cannot alter the position as at the time of publication.”

This case therefore clarifies that it is NOT libellous to express genuine and rational concerns about safeguarding issues even if subsequently concerns are allayed.

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