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The Solicitor-General: I do not have as long and distinguished a record as my hon. Friend on this matter, but I am old enough to remember the time when a cot death was implicitly regarded as being the fault of, and at the hands of, the mother. That was the conventional
We will reflect on how we reached the current situation and the Court of Appeal judgment. But what is important now is to go forward and to identify any miscarriages of justice; indeed, that is at the forefront of our agenda.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): My constituent, Angela Cannings, and her family and my former constituent, Sally Clark and her family, have been to hell andthank Godback in this appalling miscarriage of justice. I know that the Solicitor-General is as angry as I am about that, and that she means to do her best. Will she take it from me that, in due course, my constituents will want to know what took the Government and the judicial system so long to recognise what was glaringly obvious, even to an amateurthat there was a reversal of the burden of proof, which put the defence in the position of having to defend clients against the opinions of a so-called expert, which were taken as gospel? Does she agree that in this day and age, even if guilty, a woman should not go to prison for such a crime under any circumstances? Other matters must be considered, so will she reflect on reforming the law in that respect?
The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman raised two points. One was about sentencing, which is constantly under consideration by, among others, the Sentencing Advisory Panelnow the Sentencing Guidelines Counciland my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am sure that both will have heard the hon. Gentleman's points about sentencing.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked about the length of time it took for this important judgment to be delivered. He will know that for many reasons it took too longwe all agree on thatbut we must now ensure that we act with the utmost expedition. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the careful judgment yesterday of Lord Justice Judge, Mrs. Justice Rafferty and Mr. Justice Pitchers, which provides a basis for us to move forward.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend is aware that, many years ago, I suffered the loss of much loved and wanted babies, and during this whole case I have often thought that, if Professor Meadow and his misogynist theories had been in vogue, perhaps I would have ended up being investigated. In my view, it has the hallmark of a medieval witch-hunt. My right hon. and learned Friend and the Minister for Women and Equality will face some extremely difficult decisions in the weeks and months ahead. I hope that the whole House recognises that and helps them as they try to heal and mend families that have been broken and badly damaged.
The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. She is one example of too many women who have suffered the loss of a child and I know that she still feels it keenly to this day. She has, however, proved to be an excellent mother and grandmother, and we
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): There are clearly several cases that have involved a serious miscarriage of justice, but I am sure that the Solicitor-General would also recognise the unhappy fact that some women do kill their children. Within the last three years, I represented a lady who did just that and pleaded guilty to infanticide. I suggest that the proper way forward is not to put a total block on prosecutions, but to say that cases should be brought to court only where, in addition to the expert evidence of the pathologist, there is other credible evidencefor example, admissions or other evidence that a woman tried to do a serious injury to her child.
The Solicitor-General: What will happen, of course, is that each case will be dealt with on its merits, but the Court of Appeal judgment has provided guidance to prosecutors that they can take into account in considering each individual case. Prosecutors will ask themselves whether a case is similar to what the Court of Appeal identified in the judgmentwhere there is no persuasive or credible evidence other than the conflicting evidence of experts. If so, such a case might well not lead to a prosecution. The Director of Public Prosecutions is considering the judgment and will issue new guidance on the implications of the Court of Appeal decision for prosecution decision-making. He is currently reviewing the 15 cases that are currently under way.
The Solicitor-General: In relation to actions arising from miscarriages of justice in family or care proceedings, the rule of the Children Act 1989that any action taken should be in the best interests of the childwill, of course, prevail. There are two issues. First, in respect of mothers who want to set aside an order of adoption in order to have the child back, the best interests of the child are paramount. Secondly, however, some mothers might simply want a declaration
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Professor Meadow's flawed evidence was instrumental in the conviction of Sally Clark, who was my constituent during her imprisonment. What the Solicitor-General said about reviewing criminal cases is clearly sensible, but may I press her on the family court cases? She said that they should be clearly identified, but did not say whether there would be a review of family court cases as there would be for criminal cases. Will she confirm that such a review is either happening or is about to happen? Does she agree that in the acutely sensitive cases that she mentioned, it is important that people do not read about what is going to happen to them and their families in a national newspaper before the Court of Appeal delivers a judgment? They should hear it from a senior family court judge after a proper review and inquiry.
The Solicitor-General: After the Court of Appeal freed Angela Canningsin a criminal casewe had the opportunity to set about identifying any further relevant cases, and our first port of call was the Prison Service. It has been more straightforward for us to try to identify and review such serious and consequential cases. Identifying those cases is more complex, as is determining the procedure for their review. In criminal cases, appeals can be made to the Court of Appeal criminal division, and we also have the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The process of how to go about a review in family cases is now being considered. The judgment that I have quoted makes clear what is at issue, but the process of identifying casesand the machinery that should be used to remedy miscarriages of justiceis not straightforward.
Neither the Government nor the family division of the Court of Appeal, nor anyone else, are holding back in their attempts to ensure that any injustice is remedied. That is our absolute focus, but we have to determine what the best procedures are, and what the best machinery is. That is by no means straightforward, but I do not rule out any of the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I, too wish to add my best wishes, as it were, to the concerns that have been expressed about the difficulty of the decisions that will have to be made in any inquiry into these family cases. The difficulty lies in the complexity of the problem, and also in its scale. It is nearly 20 years since I cross-examined Sir Roy Meadow in a family case, which shows that he has been in practice for a very long time. However, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made a valid point when he spoke about the care that has to be taken, as in the case to which I have referred, there was powerful evidence to support Professor Meadow's contention.
I was unclear about the Government's response to the question raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about the significance of the GMC inquiry into Professor Meadow. That inquiry should not delay an inquiry into the family cases, whose basis will be that the Court of Appeal has found that Professor Meadow's evidence has been undermined or discredited. The inquiry into family cases can have no impact on Professor Meadow's tribunal, and the outcome of his tribunal cannot be remotely relevant to the inquiry. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the inquiry is begun immediately?