Tribunal could have spared Charlie Gard's parents '˜false hope'
Expert panels deciding similar cases could help “avoid the worst features of enormous public discussion and the enormous length and expense”, Oxford University physician Dominic Wilkinson told the Press Association.
Professor Wilkinson, who focuses on newborn intensive care, added: “They could make decisions that wouldn’t be subject to multiple levels of appeal. Time was clearly a very important factor here.
“Professionals fear other cases of disagreement will mean widespread social media interest, attracting ill-informed offers of treatment and comments that may actually be giving patients and families false hope.
“That would be very regrettable; it may even be inevitable in this era.”
He added existing NHS ethics committees lack legal decision-making powers and are poorly funded and under-used.
Details of family court hearings are largely private, in stark opposition to the Gard saga, which grabbed attention across the world - from the Vatican to the White House.
Family Division president Sir James Munby published guidance on making family hearings more transparent in 2014, responding to charges they were a “system of secret and unaccountable justice”.
Courts in England have considered 10 cases involving contested medical treatment of children so far this year, according to an Observer investigation. Most are dealt with out of the public gaze.
Family law specialist David Burrows backed the idea of looking at alternatives to courts to resolve complex, esoteric issues.
He said: “You could ask: ‘Are lawyers and judges the best people to provide answers?’ That’s a really interesting question that would justify more exploring.
“In a case like this, you’re assessing a medical question, and it’s a medical answer, really. Why not just have a panel of doctors in the first place? That’s definitely worth pursuing.”
With the number of appeals capped, it would save time and money and “potentially give you a much clearer, straighter answer”.
He added there was already a little-used procedure called ‘”assessors” for specialist questions which was “effectively an inquiry panel chaired by a judge”.
This could save each side wheeling out different experts to argue with each other and should be looked at for “the sake of these kids who are kept in limbo for so long”, he said.
He added: “I’ve done this job for 40-odd years and I’ve never seen this system used, even though it’s in the rules.”
The assessor and expert legislation in family proceedings is covered in legal Practice Directions part 25 in England and Wales, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Reflecting on the longer-term effects of the Gard case, Mark Christie, of Stowe Family Law, said it didn’t necessarily set a precedent, but added: “It may make people think in a similar situation, they wouldn’t push it as far as Charlie’s parents did.
“Parents may now think whether they really want to go down that road of challenging the medical fraternity.”
Professor Wilkinson added the Gard episode highlighted “one of the reasons to lament public discussion”.
“The opinion of health professionals, scientists and politicians, who don’t have the facts, points to the perils of armchair diagnosis and ethical analysis without the specifics,” he said.