D v East Berkshire Community Health _NHS Trust; K and another v Dewsbury Healthcare _NHS Trust and another ; K and another v Oldham NHS Trust

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
Judgment Date2005

Child abuse – Duty of care – Allegations of child abuse being proved unfounded – Parents claiming damages from NHS trusts for psychiatric harm caused by false allegations – Whether duty of care owed to child and parents.

In each of three appeals doctors suspected a child had been the subject of non-accidental injury by a parent or suspected false reporting carrying a future risk of non-accidental injury. In each case after further investigation it turned out that that was not so. Each parent in consequence suffered psychiatric disorder. In each case the parent then brought proceedings against the hospital trust and, in one instance, the doctor personally, claiming damages for negligence in the clinical investigation, diagnosis and reporting of the child’s condition. In each case the outcome at first instance of preliminary issues of law or the equivalent was that the parent’s claim was bound to fail. The parents appealed from those decisions. The appeals were dismissed by the Court of Appeal and the parents appealed to the House of Lords contending that the duty of health professionals to exercise due professional skill and care was owed to a child’s primary carers, usually parents, as well as to the child himself or herself, and that there was no good policy reason to deny the existence of such a duty, which was the same duty as that owed to the child.

Held – (Lord Bingham dissenting) Where the relationship between doctor and parent was confined to the fact that the parent was father or mother of the doctor’s patient, the appropriate level of protection for a parent suspected of abusing his or her child was that clinical and other investigations had to be conducted in good faith. There were cogent reasons of public policy for holding that no common law duty of care should be owed to the parent and it was not fair just and reasonable to impose such a duty. The seriousness of child abuse as a social problem demanded that health 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, or when deciding whether their doubts should be communicated to others, or when deciding what further investigatory or protective steps should be taken. The suggested duty owed to parents did not have the same content as the duty owed to the child, which was to exercise due skill and care in investigating the possibility of abuse. At the time when the doctor was considering the possibility of abuse by the parent the interests of parent and child were diametrically opposed. There might, exceptionally, be circumstances where the general rule did not apply. In the instant cases there were no such special circumstances, and accordingly, the appeals would be dismissed.

Decision of the Court of Appeal [2003] 3 FCR 1 affirmed.

Cases referred to in opinions

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Cases referred to in list of authorities

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DLC v Walsh (1995) 908 SW 2d 791, Missouri Ct of Apps.

Doe v McKay (1998) 700 NE 2d 1018, Ill SC.

Doe v Winny (2002) 764 NE 2d 143, Ill App Ct.

Doughty v General Dental Council [1987] 3 All ER 843, [1988] AC 164, [1987] 3 WLR 769, PC.

DP v UK[2002] 3 FCR 385, ECt HR.

Evans v London Hospital Medical College [1981] 1 All ER 715, [1981] 1 WLR 184.

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