Taxpayers face £40m bill for babies harmed in the womb by mothers who were alcoholics

“…The [U.K.] Ministry of Justice has budgeted for 87 young claimants to get compensation worth up to £500,000 each if judges rule that the alcoholism of their pregnant mothers meant they were the victims of crimes while still in the womb…”

21 Jun 2015
[Daily Mail, U.K.]
By Martin Beckford
This case could stigmatise women’

TAXPAYERS face a bill of more than £40 million to compensate children left brain-damaged by their mothers’ heavy drinking, it can be revealed.

Official documents show the Government is braced for the massive payout if it loses a crucial court case later this year.

The Ministry of Justice has budgeted for 87 young claimants to get compensation worth up to £500,000 each if judges rule that the alcoholism of their pregnant mothers meant they were the victims of crimes while still in the womb.

The payments will be triggered if a six-year-old girl affected by foetal alcohol spectrum disorder wins a test case in the autumn.

The girl, who cannot be named, was left with serious birth defects including learning disabilities, facial abnormalities and growth problems. Her adoptive parents, who live with her in the south of England, have brought the case to help cover the costs of the treatment she will need throughout her life.

Lawyers will argue that the girl effectively suffered an assault akin to grievous bodily harm, such was the damage caused by her mother’s drinking while pregnant.

Neil Sugarman, of GLP Solicitors, who is acting in the case, told The Mail on Sunday last night: ‘Sadly, the children and young people we represent have been terribly badly damaged by foetal alcohol syndrome. They struggle to have access to the treatment and therapies they so badly need.

‘We want them to have the chance to ask the tribunal to reconsider whether they deserve an award under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.’

The girl’s case will be held before a court called the First-Tier Tribunal in the autumn, after a previous test case failed last year.

In the earlier hearing, lawyers said a seven-year-old girl diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder – whose mother drank half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of strong lager a day while pregnant – had been the victim of a poisoning, a crime under the Offences Against The Person Act 1861. But judges ruled that a foetus does not constitute a person under the Victorian law. An appeal to the Supreme Court was also rejected.

Some experts believe the fresh challenge will also struggle because the law does not consider a foetus as capable of being the victim of an assault. There is an offence of ‘child destruction’, but the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 requires that either the mother or another assailant intended to kill the unborn baby and not just harm it.

However, in a sign of how serious the Ministry of Justice is taking the case, it calculated the potential cost to taxpayers within weeks of the legal papers being lodged.

In the department’s latest annual report, a section on ‘contingent liabilities’ states: ‘An appeal by an applicant against the decision of the Upper Tribunal in a tariff case concerning foetal alcohol spectrum disorder was rejected by Court of Appeal in November 2014. They requested permission to appeal from the Supreme Court… Permission to appeal was refused on April 21.

‘The representatives have now selected another test case to [argue] before the First-Tier Tribunal. This is likely to be heard in October/ November. There are 87 known cases – the minimum exposure is estimated at £26million with a maximum exposure of £43.5million.’

A spokesman for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority said: ‘The Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme awards taxpayerfunded payments to victims who are seriously injured as a result of violent crime. Our position in relation to this fresh challenge will be informed by the recent decision of the Court of Appeal and the refusal of the Supreme Court to grant permission to appeal.’

Some campaigners and charities have opposed the compensation attempt on the grounds that it could undermine abortion rights or even lead to women being penalised for any behaviour during pregnancy that involves risk, such as eating unpasteurised cheese.

Bill Esterson, a Labour MP who is launching the first All-Party Parliamentary Group for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder this month, said: ‘I don’t support the case because it could stigmatise women. I think what’s needed is to improve education to reduce the incidence.

‘Once we start to demonise people it’s a dangerous route to go down.

‘A better use of the money would be to provide greater awareness and education, to tell children at school before it’s too late.’