A world-renowned neuropathologist who has challenged the existence of shaken baby syndrome in the courts begins her legal battle to be reinstated in the High Court today. Back in March, Dr Waney Squier was banned from practicing after having been found to have lied and misled courts in a determination by the medical practitioners tribunal, the disciplinary arm of the General Medical Council.
Earlier this month more 250 doctors, academics, and lawyers have urged the GMC to rethink. In an open letter to the British Medical Journal, the signatories, led by the paediatric pathologist Irene Scheimberg, argued that ‘the GMC’s decision was depriving patients of Squier’s “invaluable contribution” to developmental neuropathology.’
The mainstream orthodoxy is that a combination of symptoms (the so-called triad) – swelling of the brain, bleeding between the skull and brain, and bleeding in the retina – indicates trauma through shaking. According to an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama, which followed Dr Squier for 12 months up to her striking off in March, there were more than 100 cases of babies with these symptoms recorded in England and Wales last year.
‘We are concerned that the assessment of whether she was misquoting or misusing expert literature in this area in which there are genuine and significant differences of opinion amongst experts working in the field is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Even if it is found to be true that her role as an expert witness in cases of shaken baby syndrome was inadequate, surely the penalty for this should not be to strike her off the register, disregarding her expertise in the wider field of paediatric and perinatal neuropathology, in which very few people have her experience. This action is depriving patients of her valuable diagnostic ability. We urge the GMC to reconsider its judgment.’
The conduct of the GMC tribunal has also been heavily criticised. As reported on the Justice Gap, Michael Birnbaum QC, who gave evidence to the tribunal on behalf of the doctor, accused its reasoning of being ‘largely formulaic and frequently illogical’. ‘In my 43 years of practice at the Bar I have rarely read a judgment of an English Court or Tribunal so deeply flawed and unfair as this,’ he said.
Immediately after the GMC’s ruling in March, supporters including the human rights lawyers Clive Stafford Smith and Michael Mansfield QC, wrote to the Guardian claiming the doctor was being scapegoated. ‘It is a sad day for science when a 21st-century inquisition denies one doctor the freedom to question ‘mainstream’ belief,’ they wrote. ‘It is a particularly sad day for the parent or carer who ends up on the wrong end of another doctor’s ‘diagnosis’ that an infant was shaken, when the child may have died from entirely different, natural causes.’
Speaking to BBC’s Newsnight last week, Dr Squier said: ‘There is no evidence to support the hypothesis of shaken baby syndrome and yet it is still being used every day in our courts as the basis on which very important decisions are made as to whether people go to prison or whether babies are going to be taken away from their families. We need a thorough independent review of shaken baby syndrome. We need to know, and the courts need to know, that there is no scientific evidence to support it and then never has been. It has been a hypothesis for 40 years and research over the last four decades has not provided any evidence to show that this hypothesis has any validity at all.’
This week’s hearing, expected to last five days, is being followed closely around the world. America journalist Susan Goldsmith recently made a film about the doctors who dared to challenge Shaken Baby Syndrome. It is reckoned that there are some 250 prosecutions in the US every year. ‘This campaign to silence the critics is the theme of our film – and it extends to England as well,’ she told the Justice Gap earlier this year.
‘Anyone who stands up and questions the flawed science of shaken baby syndrome is attacked, belittled and censured,’ commented Goldsmith. ‘Dr Squier deserves a medal for her willingness to stand up for science, no matter the consequences. There is a frightening mob of supporters behind this diagnosis who are not backing down because they have built careers on this theory. The stakes are enormous – an estimated 1,000 innocent Americans in prison for this invalid science now. We need more doctors like Dr Squier.’
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award