Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Friday, 23 April 2010 17:53 UK

Baby Peter sacking was lawful, the High Court rules

By Angela Harrison
BBC News social affairs correspondent

Sharon Shoesmith
Ms Shoesmith was sacked in December 2008

The former head of children's services at Haringey Council has lost a case in which she claimed she had been unfairly sacked after the death of Baby Peter.

Sharon Shoesmith was fired following a damning report by Ofsted inspectors after the death of Baby Peter at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend.

The High Court rejected her claim that she was unlawfully sacked.

The judgement has been welcomed by Ofsted and the Children's Secretary Ed Balls, but Ms Shoesmith might appeal.

Peter Connelly died at the age of 17 months after enduring months of abuse, despite being seen by health and social services professionals 60 times in the last eight months of his life.

Social workers, health teams and the police had all known he was at risk.

The former head of children's services at the north London council had claimed she was made a scapegoat and unlawfully sacked after a media outcry.

Children's Secretary, Ed Balls: "I would make the same decision again"

But at the High Court, Mr Justice Foskett said the decision to remove Ms Shoesmith could "not be impugned on the grounds of unfairness".

He said: "I have rejected as 'too simplistic' the suggestion that the Secretary of State's decision to commission the Ofsted inspection was driven by 'party politics', as indeed I have also rejected the suggestion that he was improperly influenced in making the decision he did on 1 December 2008 by a petition presented to him a few days previously by a national newspaper."

Ms Shoesmith lost her job in December 2008, a week after Ofsted published an emergency report (called a Joint Area Review) into child protection in Haringey.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls had sent the inspectors in to the local authority after Peter's mother and boyfriend were convicted of "causing or allowing" his death.

Baby Peter Connelly
Baby Peter died from repeated abuse, despite 60 visits from authorities

Ms Shoesmith had taken action against Mr Balls, Ofsted and Haringey Council.

She had claimed that Ofsted had changed its report to make it more critical of her personally; that was denied by the inspectorate.

Mr Justice Foskett said it had been his role to judge whether procedures had been followed fairly - and not to rule on the merits of decisions made or on whether the Ofsted report had been unfairly strengthened during the final stages.

He said he dismissed Sharon Shoesmith's High Court challenge with a "lurking sense of unease".

"I cannot think that any party will truly look back at how matters were handled in this case with complete satisfaction," he added.

Mr Balls and Ofsted did not emerge unscathed in the judgement and Haringey Council was criticised.

Mr Justice Foskett expressed concern that Mr Balls was "persuaded to offer his opinion" that Ms Shoesmith should be dismissed.

By Tom Symonds, UK affairs correspondent

This case was a degree removed from the tragedy of Peter Connelly. The lawyers weren't arguing about how a small boy could die despite being well known to the authorities or about how well Sharon Shoesmith managed Haringey children's services. This was an inquiry into an inquiry.

Could the Secretary of State and Ofsted make cool, calm decisions in the face of public fury? The judge says yes, but with 'a lurking sense of unease'.

The judgement suggests the fairness of the system was creaking under the pressure. The inspection by Ofsted was 'rushed', Sharon Shoesmith had no right to reply. The council seemed to have reached a foregone conclusion when sacking her.

As Mr Justice Foskett puts it, no-one will look back at how the case was handled with a 'complete sense of satisfaction'. The implication is that lessons must be learnt.

But he said he could find "no sustainable basis" for the suggestion that there was "political or other improper interference in the Ofsted inspection, or the report-writing process by, or on behalf, of the Secretary of State".

There were "strong grounds" for thinking that Ms Shoesmith and others subjected to the Ofsted inspection did not have a fair opportunity to explain their position - but that "did not invalidate what Ofsted did".

The judge expressed concern over Haringey's decision to dismiss her, but said it was for an employment tribunal to decide whether she had been treated unfairly by the council.

He said: "In a nutshell, I have not been satisfied the procedures at Haringey gave the appearance of fairness".

After the judgement, Mr Balls said "It is clear from the judgement that my motivations were the right ones and I acted in a proper and right way."

"The urgent Ofsted inspection, which I commissioned following the end of the trial, found very serious failings in children's services in Haringey," he said.

"The fact that children were at risk meant it was right for me to take swift, decisive action when presented with the evidence. Faced with the same situation - and on the basis of the information put before me - I would arrive at the same decision."

The ruling was also welcomed by Ofsted's chief inspector Christine Gilbert.

"I am pleased that the judge's conclusion is clear: Ofsted's inspection process has been vindicated," she said.

Mr Justice Foskett QC
The case was heard by Mr Justice Foskett QC

"Ofsted takes its role in inspecting the protection arrangements for vulnerable children very seriously.

"We carried out a robust inspection, came to a sound conclusion based on the evidence and acted fairly.

"The inspection team did a professional and rigorous job and we are pleased that they have been vindicated through the intense scrutiny of the court process."

Ms Shoesmith's lawyers said they were "disappointed" by the judgement and would see if there were grounds for an appeal.

In a statement, the London-based Beachcroft partnership said: "We are disappointed that, despite the serious criticisms made by the judge of Ofsted, the Secretary of State and Haringey council, the judge has not upheld Sharon's claim for judicial review.

"We nevertheless welcome the finding that Haringey acted unfairly in dismissing Sharon."

Ms Shoesmith had also taken her case to an employment tribunal, but this was halted pending the outcome of this judicial review and could now be resumed.

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