12:00 - 22 June 2004

A Test case accusing paediatrician David Southall of psychological damage could open the floodgates to dozens of similar claims by angry parents. A mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has won permission to appeal in the House of Lords for the right to sue Professor Southall for damages after he accused her of child abuse.

If successful, the test case could mean up to 120 parents lining up to sue the North Staffordshire doctor.

The mother and her son were seen by the paediatrician at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire more than nine years ago when the family's GP, in East Berkshire, described the young boy as "the most allergic patient I have ever known".

But in 1994, Professor Southall accused the mother in medical records of having Munchausen syndrome by proxy and faking or inducing illness in the child to draw attention to herself.

She did not find out about the accusations until 1997, her solicitor Rachael Vasmer said, when she finally saw the medical records.

Her son, now a teenager, was admitted to hospital after Prof Southall said he was at risk of harm.

Three months later he was removed from the at-risk register when his condition was properly diagnosed, but his mother claims to have suffered acute anxiety and depression as a result of the allegations.

Both the lower courts and the court of appeal dismissed her right to sue, ruling it would be against public policy for parents to be able to take action over mistaken diagnoses relating to their children, but she is now taking it to the law lords this autumn.

In previous cases it has been ruled the child can sue but parents also affected cannot.

Solicitor Mrs Vasmer said: "At present, parents who suffer injury because they are falsely accused of harming their children cannot claim compensation. The interests of the children are paramount but this does not mean that the rights of parents should be ignored.

"These allegations can have devastating consequences on the parents involved and, in my view, it is wrong to deny parents a remedy when allegations are made without reasonable grounds. If successful these cases will widen the duty of care to include parents who are injured when doctors and social workers make allegations unreasonably."

There are an estimated 120 civil cases in which Prof Southall was called as the expert witness and children were taken from their parents and placed in care.

A GMC verdict recently found the professor guilty of abusing his position after the hospital consultant told police a man had killed his two babies on the strength of watching a television documentary.

It will now decide in August if his actions make him guilty of a serious professional misconduct charge which could see him struck off, suspended or reprimanded.

The mother involved in the test case has also lodged an official complaint with the General Medical Council.

A spokesman for the GMC confirmed seven outstanding complaints against Prof Southall are yet to be dealt with by the council, but could not confirm any allegation details.

A hospital spokesman said: "We cannot comment in detail on specific child protection cases or allegations to the media about them. Professor Southall has received legal advice he should not comment until the GMC has decided what, if any, action they should take on cases being considered by them.

"However, following a two year investigation into allegations including some concerning child protection issues, during which Professor David Southall was suspended from his post he was reinstated after no case to answer was found in respect of professional misconduct or incompetence."

He added that a panel of health experts found Professor Southall "always acted in a way that promoted the best interests of children under his care and that he took decisions in collaboration with colleagues from other agencies. They did not find any evidence of inappropriate diagnosis."


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