Suspected Inflicted Head Injury Service (SIHIS) for children pilot: potential Article 8 and 6 risks to parents and children

26 June 2024

There has been much speculation about the “experts’ hub” pilot - intended  to assess and provide opinions about suspected inflicted head/spine injuries in children under the age of 8 within care proceedings. Details about how it works in practice remain scarce at the point of writing, but it is clear that concerns are already prevalent.

What is known is that the Department for Education, in conjunction with the Family Justice Council Experts Sub Committee, is currently trialling 3 multi-disciplinary clinical hubs around the country to examine and report on abusive head/spine trauma cases.

I don’t intend to repeat the views and concerns raised by Professor Delahunty KC and others – I cannot express them more clearly or concisely.

Nevertheless, family law barristers are troubled by both the ramifications on the rights of parties and the process by which this pilot came into being.

If even some of the presumptions about the pilot are correct, there is a real risk to the Article 8 and 6 rights of parents and children in the running of hubs. This could arise from:

  • the selection of experts and the parents’ role in this
  • the operation of any instruction/referral and different parties’ role within this
  • use of expert hub evidence in the Public Law Outline (PLO) process and how this will interact with any appointed experts within proceedings
  • the relationship between the current practice of restricting cross-examination and restriction on identifying of experts.
  • the ultimate consequences of adverse findings against parents.

Care proceedings are one of the most stressful times in a family’s life. If non-accidental injury is proven, children may be adopted and lose all links with their biological family. A right to a fair hearing is self-evidently fundamental in such cases, and there has been no reassurance about how this will be preserved in cases using such hubs.

The stress is not only limited to lay parties.  Social workers are leaving the profession in droves, partly due to the demands of the job and the emotional pressures. These are some of the most distressing cases for professionals and the need for clear and informed processes is paramount for those working within the system.

Furthermore, in respect of how the pilot has come about, there appears to have been no training provided to legal professionals about how to use this resource. How it can be properly implemented is therefore very unclear. The risk of duplication of work or things being missed is real, particularly when people are unclear how this will work in practice.

More worryingly, the Family Law Bar Association was not consulted when the pilot scheme was being formulated. Potential valuable insights from barristers who regularly work in this area went unheard. It is also further unclear whether/how much consultation took place with Resolution or with the judiciary. The wellbeing pressures on legal professionals have been well-documented elsewhere, and imposing an improperly implemented pilot could add to an already strained state of affairs.

The drive to achieve positive outcomes for the court and clinicians is presumably what is behind the introduction of the pilot scheme:. Potential advantages include:

  • shortening the lengthy delays currently plaguing expert reports in non-accidental injury cases
  • the public cost of such reports, and
  • concerns regarding consistency and quality of reporting.

However, one cannot escape the fact that  the implications for public resources, including valuable court resources, of an improperly set up pilot could be huge. The difficulty is that the lack of transparency means that such purported benefits cannot be properly addressed and examined.

The stakes are too high, for families in particular, but also courts, social workers and legal professionals within the system, for pilot projects to be set up in a seemingly haphazard way with little transparency, guidance, or explanation.

The pilot will end on 31 March 2025.