A (A Child): Father wins appeal against poisoning findings

Detail from Sigismonda Drinking the Poison. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Well. You don't come across a case involving the alleged poisoning of one party by the other very often.

But in A (A Child) it was (allegedly) even worse than that. As Lady Justice King explained:

"...the judge found that the father had poisoned each of: his partner's father ("the grandfather"); his partner's mother ("the grandmother"); and his partner ("the mother") with thallium, resulting in the death of the grandfather and the grandmother and the mother becoming very seriously ill."


The case involved an application by a father for contact with his 9 year-old child. The application was opposed by the mother, due to what she (somewhat understatedly) called the father's "abhorrent behaviour" during the latter part of their relationship.

At a fact-finding hearing the judge, Her Honour Judge Jacklin QC, made the following findings:

1. That the maternal grandfather died from thallium poisoning.

2. That the thallium that caused the death was administered deliberately by the father on 11 September 2012.

3. That the maternal grandmother and mother were seriously unwell in September and October 2012 as a result of thallium poising.

4. That the thallium that caused their illness was administered deliberately by the father on 11 September 2012.

5. That the father was aware that he had administered the thallium and was therefore aware of the cause of the mother's illness in September/October 2012.

6. That being so aware, the father failed to inform the medics who saw the mother in the various hospitals she visited, and failed to pursue appropriate medical treatment with the necessary urgency.

The father appealed, arguing that the judge failed properly to analyse certain critical evidence, and that this failure went to the heart of the conclusions she reached, rendering her findings unsafe.

For the purpose of this summary I only need to deal briefly with the background to the judge's findings.

The parents are both of Bulgarian origin. The father is a doctor. In September 2012 they were staying with the maternal grandparents in Bulgaria. Lady Justice King takes up the story:

"It was the events of the 11 September 2012 upon which the finding of fact hearing largely focused. It was the custom of the grandparents to get up at about 6:00am to work in their garden. They were in the habit of making coffee first thing and drinking it on the veranda in a leisurely way during the course of the morning. On this particular morning, the mother called to the grandmother from her bedroom saying that she did not want coffee and would stay in bed for a while. The father, in contrast, did not usually get up before 10:00am. On this morning he got up at about 7:30am after the grandmother had prepared the coffee and poured it out for herself and her husband.

"The mother, finding that she could not get back to sleep, came on to the veranda, lit a cigarette and sat down on a swing seat with the father. Seeing her mother's coffee, the mother changed her mind about wanting a drink and picked up her mother's mug of coffee and drank about half of it. During the course of the morning, the grandmother drank the other half of her coffee and the grandfather, as was his habit, sipped his from time to time until he had finished his drink.

"The mother's case at trial was that when she had come on to the veranda, the father had his back to her and she could see he was 'leaning over' the table where the two cups of coffee were placed. He did not turn to greet her but remained where he was for some moments before turning around."

Subsequent to this, the mother, maternal grandmother and grandfather all became ill. Sadly, the maternal grandfather died two days later. He was found to have died from thallium poising, and both the mother and grandmother were tested positive for thallium.

The appeal revolved around two issues: the judge's finding that the father had been seen by the mother 'leaning over' the coffee cups in which the poison had been administered at the critical time (the "leaning over" evidence); and (ii) the judge's findings as to the father's motive.

As to the "leaning over" evidence, Lady Justice King found that the judge had been too eager to accept the mother's evidence of events that had lasted only a few seconds seven years before, in circumstances where her recollection was taking place in the aftermath of unimaginably traumatic events. There was evidence that contradicted this, in particular the mother's failure to have described the "leaning over" evidence in statements that she made nearer to the time. Lady Justice King concluded:

"In my judgment, the judge clearly regarded the 'leaning over' finding to be, if not the lynch pin, certainly central to her conclusion that the father had killed the grandfather and tried to kill the grandmother. These are findings of the utmost seriousness made in relation to anyone, but particularly shocking when made in relation to a doctor. Fairness required a rigorous analysis of all the evidence relevant to the 'leaning over' issue. In my judgment, the judge inappropriately favoured an aspect of the oral evidence of the mother over a significant amount of contemporaneous and written evidence, without reference to that evidence, or sufficiently explaining why she had done this. This omission, in my view, inevitably serves to undermine the findings made against the father."

As to the issue of motive, the judge had found "that the father was motivated to remove the grandparents as they were obstacle to a continuing relationship with the mother and close involvement in the life of his son. Anything short of their demise was unlikely to achieve that." Lady Justice King gave this short shrift:

"With respect to the judge, who was hearing a peculiarly difficult and complex case, she was on any view in error in reaching the conclusion she did in respect of motive in circumstances where that alleged motive had not been put to the father in cross examination. The finding reached by the judge was arrived at without her having pulled together and analysed all the available evidence as to the relationship between the father and the mother and, separately, the father and the grandparents, both historically and over the few days before the poisoning. With great respect to the judge, a finding that the father 'disliked' the grandmother is insufficient without more to underpin a finding of a motive on the father's part for setting out deliberately to kill two people; an action which would have required some planning, not least the acquisition of the poison. Without careful forensic scrutiny of all the relevant evidence, the finding by the judge that the father's motive was to kill the grandparents as a means to get them out of his and his partner's life, whilst at the same time he sat by and watched that same partner drink poisoned coffee, amounted, in my judgment, to speculation.

"Even though a finding of motive was not a necessary component in order for the judge to find that the father deliberately administered thallium to the grandparents' coffee with the intention of killing them, the judge's approach to the issue of motive, in my view, serves further to undermine the judgment as a whole, providing a further example of findings being made which were not based on a rigorous analysis of the evidence."

Accordingly, the appeal was allowed, and the matter remitted for rehearing before a High Court Judge.

You can read the full judgment here.