The tragic and wholly avoidable murder of Ellie Butler is up there with the worst of them. This delightful yet totally vulnerable six year old girl was killed by her sadistic, violent and domineering father whilst her mother looked on, totally besotted by him and in fear of him.
Sadly, nothing unusual there, we professionals have heard it all before, where abused and endangered children are murdered by their parents under the noses of the so-called caring agencies. But what makes this so tragic is that the father had been convicted of abusing Ellie when she was only seven weeks old. All the symptoms of the abuse pointed to shaken baby syndrome, but his conviction was overturned and Mrs. Justice Hogg went out of her way to exonerate him as a victim of a miscarriage of justice. In addition, and to the astonishment of everybody, lay and professional alike, the judge issued an order informing all the agencies who might come into contact with Ellie that the father had been exonerated. The effect of this order was to shut out the agencies and effectively give the father the power to dominate, abuse and ultimately kill his daughter.
Shaken baby syndrome is by no means universally accepted, but it is sufficiently well researched to explain criminal injuries that would otherwise go unpunished. Even today, after decades of research, there is a handful of ‘experts’ who refuse to accept what is staring them in the face, and posit theories that are wrong and misleading. As they say, somewhat tritely, for every expert positing an opinion, there is another one gainsaying it.
But my experience tells me that in these areas, there are often shades of grey and not just black and white, and where there might be an innocent explanation, the caring agencies are often best placed to provide it. If, as in this case, these agencies are excluded, an important safeguard for the abused child’s protection has been removed.
When I first came to the Bar, one of the early lessons I was taught by my senior colleagues was never to become emotionally involved with the case and the client. This important rule applies to advocate and judge alike, and failure to observe it risks losing judgment. This is clearly what happened with Mrs. Justice Hogg, and she must live with the consequences of her misjudgment. That misjudgment was all the more astonishing when she ignored the warning of Ellie’s grandparents, who had cared for her for most of her short life. They knew the father better than most, and certainly better than the judge, and when a return to the abusive father was being contemplated, they told the judge that she would have blood on her hands. A chilling premonition.
I doubt if Mrs. Justice Hogg will wish to defend her decision. After all, it is indefensible, and in any event, she has now retired. I do not doubt that in her many years as a judge, she has served well and honourably, but sadly, she will be remembered more for her catastrophic misjudgment in Ellie’s case than for any other reason.
Too late for regrets.