February 4 2001
A father explains to Margarette Driscoll why, in a landmark case, he is suing his former lover for the cost of bringing up a child who turned out not to be his
Tangled lives: Keith with his wife, a solicitor who is acting on his behalf to win £250,000 redress for bringing up another man's child
He's no son of mineMargarette Driscoll
The Sunday Times
The details written on your birth certificate stay there for life. Thus, in future, whenever he needs to produce his birth certificate - to apply for a passport, say, or marry - a little boy growing up in the north of England will see a name in the space marked "father" that is bound to cause him pain.
The man loved and cared for Andrew until he was seven, believing him to be his son. When he and the boy's mother split up, however, he discovered his "son" was the result of his former lover's relationship with another man.
He was horrified, hurt, humiliated and, seemingly, determined to wreak revenge. Last week, in a legal first, he was given leave by the High Court to sue his former lover for fraud. The case should be heard in early summer and he is seeking damages of £250,000 to cover the costs of bringing up the child and as compensation for his emotional distress.
It is tempting to assume that Mr X - let's call him Keith - is an unfeeling bastard (none of the parties are allowed to be publicly named to protect the child). What kind of man, you might ask, could demand back every penny he spent on a child he admits he loved? He and the boy played and travelled together, gardened and kept bees and mucked about making things in the shed; in short, built a classic father-and-son relationship of love, trust and mutual reliance.
Yet what kind of woman could stand by and watch such a relationship grow, knowing it was built on a lie? Keith believes, rightly or wrongly, that as a successful and wealthy man he was cynically used as a meal ticket.
According to him, after his girlfriend left him for another man in 1996, she demanded £280,000 - virtually the entire value of their house at the time - a Porsche belonging to him that she drove and maintenance of £600 a month, even though he is sure she knew he was not the father all along.
"That is the most awful thing about it," he says. "Everyone comes out hurt and it's all so unnecessary because, clearly, she always knew there was someone else."
Keith, 53, still lives in the beautiful thatched cottage they shared as a family. Today, it is also home to his wife Helen, a solicitor who is acting on his behalf.
They lead an enviably comfortable lifestyle, spending much of the year abroad. The case, Keith insists, is not, and has never been, about money. "If I make a penny out of it, it will go to straight to a children's charity," he says.
Keith met Pippa, the boy's mother, in 1980, when he was a senior executive with a multinational. He had fallen from a horse and hurt his elbow; she was the company physiotherapist.
Keith was newly divorced (he has two grown-up daughters from his first marriage) and feeling lonely. He travelled a lot and he and Pippa would date from time to time when he was in England. As far as he was concerned, there were no strings attached on either side: "Pippa was good company and I enjoyed going out with her now and then. I knew she was seeing other men, but it was a relationship that was convenient for both of us, no more."
Keith says that, after he had known Pippa for a couple of years, she fell pregnant. There was no question that the baby was his: he was abroad at the time it was conceived. She had a termination and he did his best to give her emotional support, even picking her up from the hospital.
The fact that she was open about that made him inclined to believe her when she told him in 1987 that she was pregnant - and the baby was his - even though he had undergone a vasectomy years before. He was still unsure, so he saw a doctor. "I was left with the belief that, although I'd had the vasectomy, yes, things could go wrong," he says.
Once he had accepted that the baby was his, he was delighted. "My two girls were already in their teens, I was 40 and it seemed like a miracle. My parents were thrilled. That hurts, too: my father is 81 and has been shattered by all this, but she's shown no remorse."
The baby was born on Cup Final day in May 1988. The labour ward was deserted. Keith had slipped out to the car park when a nurse called him back. "We ended up delivering Andrew together, just me and this little trainee nurse."
At first there were no doubts. But by the time Andrew was four and his personality clearly forming, a nagging feeling set in. "One of the pleasures of parenthood is seeing yourself, your good and bad points, reflected in your child," says Keith. "It's hard to explain. There wasn't the connection with him I'd had with my daughters."
In 1994, when Andrew was six, Keith secretly had a sperm count. It was negative, but not conclusive. The vasectomy still might not have been failsafe.
Keith accepts that some people can't understand why, at this stage, it mattered. He had a strong relationship with Andrew. People come to accept, and love, stepchildren or adopted children all the time. "I know that," he says. "But if you marry someone with children or adopt a child you make a choice to love that child. I did not have the right to decide. The love I had for him was based on a lie.
"Had she told me it was someone else's child I would have asked her to leave. I wouldn't have thrown her out in the cold, but I would have asked her to make other arrangements and wished her luck. I would not have wanted to form that relationship with Andrew."
In January 1996 Pippa left, to return to her roots in the northeast and marry a childhood sweetheart. She took Andrew with her. Their informal agreement was that she would support him in term-time and Keith during the holidays, but from the start things were fraught.
Keith did not see or speak to Andrew till Easter, when he came to stay. He was "delighted" to have him back, but while he was there Keith siezed the opportunity to pick a stray hair from one of his jumpers and sent it with one of his own for analysis.
"It's one thing to doubt, but to open the envelope and read "Mr A cannot be the father of child B" was awful. I felt a jumble of emotions; anger, confusion, sadness."
After that he refused all Pippa's financial demands. She called in the Child Support Agency, continuing to insist he was Andrew's father. Several court hearings later, a blood test established conclusively that the two were not related. The final act was to have Andrew's birth certificate amended. Though Keith's name still appears on it, an official addendum warns readers to ignore it.
He has not seen or spoken to Andrew for nearly five years and has no idea whether he knows about the case. "It gets easier," he says, "but it's almost like the death of a child. I find it hard to think about him, it's too painful."
Keith could have returned the money Pippa invested in their house, and called it quits. Instead, Helen came up with the novel idea of using the law of deceit, usually only used commercially. In America, four similar cases have been allowed to go ahead.
Keith can sue because his case seems clear cut. As he had had a vasectomy, any confusion over paternity doesn't look too convincing. But, while allowing the case to go forward, Mr Justice Burnton said it "did not follow" that damages would be recoverable even if the deceit were proved.
And at the centre of this tangled web is a boy, now 12, who may still believe Keith to be his father and may some day turn up. How will he feel about the legal case?
"I don't know what he will think, but whatever happens he'll be hurt and that could have been avoided," says Keith. "He'll want to find his real father and, just like the rest of us, he deserves to know the truth."
Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.