THREE children who were killed by their mother were
“patently failed’ by the Scottish legal system, a senior sheriff has claimed.
Theresa Riggi stabbed her young sons and daughter to death even though a court had earlier ordered them to be urgently taken into care to keep them safe.
Now an outspoken sheriff has become the most senior legal figure yet to condemn the handling of the case.
Sheriff Annella Cowan said the Riggi children were let down by a legal system that had had not acted quickly enough and had failed to prevent the children’s tragic deaths.
She made the explosive allegation during a separate child custody case where she insisted on immediate action to protect a vulnerable child.
Insisting that there be no delays, the Sheriff in the latest case said:
“I was conscious that the legal system had, in the preceding month, patently failed to protect three children when court orders had not been acted on expeditiously. “
Riggi stabbed eight-year-old twins Augustino and Gianluca and their five-year-old sister Cecilia eight times each last year, the day after she failed to turn up for a court divorce hearing.
When she didn’t show on August 3, her husband’s lawyer told judge Lady Clarke there was
“a real emergency in this matter.” Lady Clarke then issued a court order advising social work staff to intervene.
The decision was handed to an independent firm employed to serve court orders, the Messenger At Arms, which was given the responsibility of tracing the family at 2pm on the day of the court hearing.
The order instructed them to collaborate with social work services.
However, City of Edinburgh Council’s children and families department said they only received the faxed ruling at 3.05pm the following day.
This was five minutes before Riggi, having stabbed her children, had thrown herself over a balcony at Slateford Road, Edinburgh.
It later transpired that Riggi had phoned her husband Pasquale at 11.30pm the day before the court date.
She accused him of being in collusion with their solicitors and asked if he would take the children away.
On being told that she had
“left him no choice’, Mrs Riggi told her husband:
“Say goodbye then.’ She then hung up.
The city council’s Marilyne MacLaren, who heads the local authority’s children and family’s department, later said:
“Nothing more could have been done to prevent this happening. “
She added: “If we’d known about it, social workers would have acted immediately. “
The Scottish Court Service (SCS) refused to comment on Sheriff Cowan’s views on the Riggi case. However, they did reveal that the SCS has no control over the Messenger At Arms. A spokeswoman said:
“Messengers-at-arms are employed by litigants in the Court of Session to serve documents and enforce orders of the court.
“They are not employees of, or otherwise subject to control by, the Scottish Court Service, but are employed within private business partnerships, with fees charged being regulated by government statute,’ she said.
The spokeswoman said the order was signed and made available to the solicitors acting for Mr Riggi on the date of thehearing. The solicitors thenrequesteda certified copy of the order from thecourt to enable them to instruct the Messengers At Arms.
The issuing of the certified copy of the order
“concluded’ the functions of the court, she added.
Riggi, 47, was sentenced to 16 years after admitting culpable homicide on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Mr Riggi said it would pain him for the rest of his life that he was
“unable’ to protect his children.
However, in the separate Aberdeen child welfare case, which followed weeks after the Riggi tragedy, Sheriff Cowan ordered that immediate action be taken to protect the child after fears were raised by a doctor.
A doctor had expressed
“extreme concern’ for the girl’s safety to Sheriff Cowan the day before a welfare hearing on September 3 last year.
In the letter written in defence of her ruling, submitted to court officials in October last year, Sherriff Cowan said:
“I placed great weight on her concerns and formed the view that she would not have taken the unusual step of contacting the court except in the most extreme circumstances.
“Bearing in mind that a parent always has the right to re-apply to the court for a variation of an order on a material change of circumstance, I came to the view that urgent steps had to be taken to protect the child in this case. “
The sheriff said she balanced the rights of the parties to be heard against the welfare of the child and came to the view that the
“protection of the child from abuse or the risk of abuse’ had to be the over-riding concern.
The doctor had told the sheriff that the mother had specifically stated she would
“abduct’ the child and
Sheriff Principal Stephen Young said he could understand why the sheriff took such
But in a judgement issued this month he overturned her decision and said it infringed the mother’s right to a fair hearing under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Child protection groups have now called for an inquiry into the failings in the Riggi case.
Claude Knights of children’s charity Kidscape said:
“It seems reasonable to say that many questions still remain regarding the death of these children. This is a most tragic case, and we owe it to the memory of these youngsters to launch an inquiry into the role of the legal system leading up to this awful tragedy.
“We cannot accept without further investigation that nothing more could have been done to prevent their deaths. Questions need to be answered and lessons need to be learned, especially in the light of the fact that the circumstances of this sad case are being used to inform similarly tragic ones, which alsoinvolve the protection of children. Kidscape believes that the safety of children is paramount, and therefore understands andsupports the sheriff’s decision in the Aberdeen case. “
Lyn Costello of Mothers Against Murder and Aggression said:
“How many cases are we going to have when it is all said too late? Lessons have to be learned from these cases and things have to be changed so we don’t lose any more children.
“I certainly back what the sheriff is saying if there are failures anywhere that have to be looked into. “
Sheriff Cowan is no stranger to making controversial decisions. In 2008 she named and shamed a 15-year-old boy who left a homeless man scarred for life after hitting him over the head with a bottle in Aberdeen.
A jury at Aberdeen Sheriff Court found Lee Reid guilty of severely injuring Matt Browning, who was a Big Issue salesman. The sheriff lifted reporting restrictions preventing identification of under 16s who appear in court, saying the publicity was part of the punishment.
Last year she threatened to desert a child porn case after a fiscal refused to let her see evidence of child pornography.
And in November a case against a man charged with storing indecent images of children and grooming a 13-year-old girl was thrown out of court by Cowan due to a clerical error.