In winning their libel case, Christopher Lillie and Dawn Reed,
who worked at the Shieldfield nursery in Newcastle upon Tyne, may
finally have ended a nightmare that lasted nine years. Accused of
abusing children in their care, first in a criminal trial and then
in an independent inquiry report, they have been exonerated on all
Newcastle Council had come under immense pressure from parents
of children at the nursery to mount the independent inquiry that,
in last week’s libel hearing, Mr Justice Eady condemned as a
“shambles”. The parents left no one in doubt that they
believed those children who said, inconsistently on occasion, that
they had been abused. But did anyone else? Whatever the faults of
the inquiry report, Abuse in Early Years, it was at least plain
that the team of three social workers and a psychologist who wrote
it believed what they had heard.
What marked out the inquiry team was its sheer lack of
detachment, a tendency to be carried along on the wave of righteous
anger generated by the parents. Other inquiries, such as those
which identified hundreds of abused children in Staffordshire,
Leicestershire and north Wales during the 1990s, benefited from the
presence of an eminent QC on the panel with a rigorous approach to
evidence. This one did not.
The continuation of what some have come to see as a gravy train
for overpaid lawyers will not be to everybody’s liking.
However, with the fear of personal liability likely to reduce the
pool of experts willing to sit on inquiry panels, it is the only
hope. For children who receive social care services, inquiries have
a special significance. At their best they provide a forum in which
their voices can be heard, their views taken seriously and their
claims tested impartially against the rules of evidence.
The Shieldfield report has been shown to be libellous, but few
experts would fault its recommendations for good practice: training
and vetting of staff, a whistleblowers’ charter and a less
adversarial legal system in relation to children, for example.
Misguided zealots the inquiry panel may have been, but they did
take up the cause of children. That is something that the courts
are only just beginning to do.