My attention this week has been drawn towards the devastating case of Poppi Worthington. Poppi was found with serious injuries at her home in Barrow in December 2012 and died in suspicious circumstances at the age of 13 months. Her father, Paul Worthington, 48, was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault but was not charged with any offence.
Following the findings of a Family Court Judge the CPS is now reviewing the case. It is understood the case will be re-examined at the highest level.
The death of the toddler had been shrouded in secrecy, with a 2014 fact-finding civil court judgement being kept private so as not to prejudice any criminal proceedings.
The tragic circumstances surrounding Poppi’s death obviously has a huge bearing upon the future arrangements for her siblings, and particularly whether the father posed a risk to those children. There was a Finding of Fact Hearing in which it was concluded on the balance of probabilities that a particularly unpleasant attack was carried out on Poppi by her father.
And there we have the crux of the tension between the criminal and civil standards of proof.
In a civil case the Court hears evidence and makes a decision as to what is in the best interests of children; it is not there to secure a conviction. If the Civil Court concludes that one or more persons were specifically responsible for wrongdoing to a child then it will say so, but sometimes this is not possible. Typically there might be an issue as to which parent was responsible for injuries and the Court know that it must be one of them but cannot say for certain which.
Making a decision ‘on the balance of probabilities’ is also a much lower standard of proof than is the case in the criminal Courts where the allegation has to be proved ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.
The Civil Court has not tried to secure a conviction but reaches a conclusion that will inform it as to its decisions regarding the welfare of children. It is not at all unusual for the Civil Court to hear evidence about findings in cases where there has been no criminal prosecution.
In this particular case not only are we discovering details of the tragic death of a child, which of course is bad enough, but reports suggest and highlight a series of failures within the context of the criminal investigation following Poppi’s death.
Mr Justice Peter Jackson, a senior Family Court Judge, first made his ruling about Poppi’s father in March 2014. Upon hearing the fathers appeal he described the Police investigation as ‘cack handed’. There are now calls for the Crown Prosecution Service to look at this matter again and to consider whether it is possible to review the evidence and to consider bringing charges. The problem is that this is an historic case, evidence that should have been collated at the time has gone for good.
It is the Judge’s concerns about the shortcomings in the Police investigation that has led to this case being reported.
These cases are always extremely difficult. On the one hand it can be argued that it is a matter of public interest that a finding of this kind has been made against a person. On the other hand it is not a criminal conviction. For whatever reason, good or bad, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Police did not feel it appropriate to bring charges. The father protests his innocence.
In light of the high profile media attention the public now know who he is, his picture is front page news. The publicity that has arisen from the reporting of the judgement may make it extremely difficult for there to be a fair trial if the CPS does feel that following a review, they have evidence that would justify prosecution.