A “VULNERABLE” father accused of badly injuring his baby daughter is a step closer to having the finger of suspicion lifted from him after the Appeal Court ruled he didn’t get a fair trial.
Top judges said that a family court hearing, at which it was decided the father was responsible for non-accidental injuries to the one-year-old, was a breach of his human rights because he wasn’t given the special support he needed.
The court, in London, heard the man – who is from the Swindon area but cannot be identified for legal reason – has a very low IQ and limited capacity.
He was required to give evidence before the family court after Wiltshire County Council launched care proceedings following the discovery of the child's injuries last year.
The father who, the court heard, could be rough when playing with the baby, denies deliberately hurting her and intended giving evidence during a fact-finding hearing.
But a psychologist who examined him found that, while he was capable of giving evidence, he should be treated as a “vulnerable witness” in light of his cognitive abilities and suggestibility.
The doctor also said the father became excessively anxious when having to speak in public and suggested measures should be put in place for his appearance in court.
Those included allowing him to give evidence from behind a screen, or via a videolink, and having someone there to support him.
Without making any findings on his ability to give evidence, the family judge decided it would help the father to have an intermediary and chose a court-appointed guardian to play that role.
However, he was not given any of the other measures and the intermediary told the judge – after helping the father to give his evidence over two days –that he was uncomfortable and said he felt he had failed the father.
The family judge also heard from the doctor who assessed the father who said that – because the safeguards he recommended were not in place – the man lacked the capacity to give evidence.
Lawyers acting for the father said the family judge should have taken the greatest care to ensure special protective measures were in place. They said without these the father simply couldn't deal with giving evidence and undergoing cross-examination.
Allowing the appeal, Lord Justice Thorpe said the family judge had used high-risk judicial management in her handling of the case, which resulted in a breach of the father’s right, under Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, to a fair hearing.
Sitting with Lord Justice Rimer and Mrs Justice Baron, he said: “I consider the justification the judge gave for the course she adopted throughout the trial is unpersuasive.
“It fails to grapple with the expert assessment as to what was essential and to explain why a simple protective measure – such as the provision of a screen – had simply not been put in place.”
The inquiry into the cause of the girl's injuries will have to be heard again by a different family judge.