Cumbria County Council attempted to get the details of a toddler’s death suppressed for 15 years in an effort to protect its staff, it has emerged. The Judge ruling on the case accepted that certain details surrounding Poppi Worthington’s death two years ago of unknown causes should be kept secret to prevent interference with any future criminal trial, but denied the council its wish to suppress the incident entirely.
Meanwhile, the Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating three officers accused of bungling the investigation into Poppi’s death. One officer has been suspended.
The council’s attempt at secrecy was made public by High Court judge Mr Justice Peter Jackson at a ruling in July, in which he ordered much of the information surrounding Poppi’s death to remain undisclosed in order to avoid Poppi’s five siblings being identified and so that any future trial would not be compromised.
However, he revealed that lawyers for the council had called for measures that “would have had the effect of concealing for the next 15 years the names of any of the family members, including the child that died and any of the agencies concerned and the geographical area in which the events occurred,” with lawyers arguing for the secrecy on the grounds that “disclosure of alleged shortcomings by agencies might be unfair to the agencies”.
Last week coroner Ian Smith recorded an open verdict on Poppi’s death saying that the circumstances around the death were “unusual and strange” but refusing to elaborate any further. No details were given of where Poppi lived, the hospital in which she died, or any of the circumstances surrounding her death including which, if any, public bodies were involved. Even her name was undisclosed, the case referring only to a “child aged 13 months”. The hearing lasted just seven minutes, causing criticism from campaigners and the media.
According to the Daily Mail, the opening of the case in February of last year was equally shrouded in mystery, with no recording or transcript made available. According to coroner’s rules, all proceedings are to be open unless it is a matter of national security that they not be.
During the course of the hearing, however, the coroner referred obliquely to the earlier July ruling in the family courts, allowing the cases to be linked. Thanks to criticism over the brevity of the coroners hearing, Mr Justice Jackson yesterday made a “limited” order in the High Court banning publication of information surrounding the death, but allowed the actions of the council in attempting to stifle the case to be reported. He criticised the Council for its “scatter-gun” approach in seeking the secrecy order, saying that public bodies bore a responsibility only to apply for restrictions “that can be reasonably justified”.
The council’s application for secrecy was supported by Poppi’s parents, the Times has reported, but was opposed by eight media organisations. Poppi’s father, Paul Worthington, 46, is currently on bail, suspected of sexual assault. A woman aged 30 has also been arrested; her identity is covered by the reporting ban.
However, police have been criticised for taking over two years to investigate the case, and a review is now underway by the IPCC into its handling. Three officers have been served with “gross misconduct notices”, one of whom has been suspended pending the results of that investigation. In a statement, Cumbria Police said “[We] can confirm that an investigation is still ongoing into the death of a one-year-old girl who died in Cumbria on Wednesday, December 12, 2012.
“We can confirm that the constabulary has made a referral to the IPCC and they are conducting an investigation.
“Currently a number of officers are subject of the investigation and one officer has been suspended.”
The Cumbria Local Safeguarding Board launched a serious case review in April, which may eventually be made public. The council has said that it had no involvement with Poppi before her death.
John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament who campaigns against secrecy by social workers and the courts told the Mail “It is reasonable to hold back publication of information until a criminal trial is over.
“However in the case of the death of Peter Connelly, Baby P, it took little more than a year for the people responsible to be prosecuted and convicted. In this case nothing appears to have happened after nearly two years.
“It is very clear in the case of Poppi Worthington that the authorities are putting all the effort they can into ensuring that none of their failings become public. As usual, they justify this by saying it is in the interest of children, when really it is in the interest of paid employees of the state.
“The real interest of children is in seeing those employees held properly to account.”