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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for the clarity of her reply. It is a misfortune that the solicitor in the case in question is her sister, but let us set that aside. Let us also recognise that whatever she may have done in the court system is a matter for the courts, not for the House. We need to consider what the Solicitor-General has done.

I find it difficult to reconcile what the Solicitor-General has told us today—that the paper passed was an anonymised judgment—and what Mr. Justice Munby is reported as having said, which was that a Department had no right to see a family division file. He said that it needed leave from a judge to do so and found that a contempt had been committed in this case. I do not doubt the good intentions of the Solicitor-General in this important and difficult area of public policy. However, given that her ministerial responsibilities include civil litigation and advice on civil law matters, including charity and family law issues, and that her secretariat is intended to provide high-grade legal advice, it is a matter for concern that matters were got wrong in this instance, because that undermines confidence in her Department.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that wider issues still need to be resolved? I suggest that one is the quality of advice available to families who have been involved in a case of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy. It should be possible to gather information in a way that does not conflict with court rules to inform Government policy on the issue. She is right to say that we need an effective crossover between civil and criminal practice in that area. Does she accept that, in this instance, she did not choose the right way to go about it?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Mr. Justice Munby says that a Minister has no right to see a family court file, but, of course, I do have the right to see family court files in some cases because I have a responsibility to intervene to assist the courts in family cases.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): The right is limited.

The Solicitor-General: The right hon. Gentleman assists me by saying that the right is limited. Perhaps I can just make it absolutely clear to the House that I want to do my job properly. I want to assist with the administration of justice. I want to abide by the rules. I want to be absolutely clear that that is the case. Obviously, I shall consider how the different Acts of Parliament—the Children Act 1989 and the Administration of Justice Act 1985—and the different jurisdictions with which I have some involvement intersect. I will make the position clear, and perhaps that will assist the House.

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The quality of the advice that is available to people who challenge care rulings in respect of their families is a matter for the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Law Society.

On the point about gathering information, there is an issue about how we can discuss cases in principle and how the law is working in principle when there is an absolute prohibition on discussing the circumstances of individual cases, but that is a wider point about which the House has been concerned.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be more aware than most of the excellent work that Sarah Harman—the solicitor in this case—has done over recent years. She takes on some of the most difficult and, frankly, unpopular cases. She is held in the highest esteem, not just in east Kent but right across the country. However, does my right hon. and learned Friend share my additional concern that Friday's judgment could effectively deny MPs access to papers and documents that could be crucial in their assisting with certain casework? Frankly, some of that casework involves the most difficult and sensitive subjects that ever come to visit us in our surgeries.

The Solicitor-General: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about Sarah Harman, and I wish to take up the additional point that he raises, which is important for the whole House. There can be very few hon. Members on either side of the House who have not had a man come into their surgeries saying, "There has been an injustice. I'm not allowed to see my children." That is the background of the case, and it is what the court has said. There can be very few hon. Members who have not experienced a woman coming to their surgeries saying, "The council has got a court order to take my children into care, and this is wrong and an injustice." That happens regularly. There is a question about where the correct response lies because Parliament must perhaps provide an avenue, a safety valve, an opportunity for those who feel that they have suffered an injustice to come to speak to their MP. Perhaps that is the right position; or perhaps the right position is that, because of the laws that we have passed in the House and their interpretation by the judges, we should tell those constituents, "Don't speak to me about this. By speaking to me, you are in contempt. Please go away. I'm not even going to talk to you."

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—I do not know whether he has had the opportunity to see the full judgment—we need to be clear exactly how the situation lies, so that we can protect the interests of children, the administration of justice in the family division and the opportunity for the House to be a safety valve for our constituents who feel that they have suffered an injustice, rather than seeing them dress up as Spiderman and climb up on to a crane.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Is it not regrettable that the Solicitor-General thought it appropriate to refer us to the internal workings of her Department in mentioning another lawyer's advice? It is her advice as the Solicitor-General that is important, and not the internal advice that she may have received from her lawyers in the Department. She is here as the

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Solicitor-General and is accountable to us in that guise. Surely, the matter is all the more regrettable when one considers her involvement in the law of disclosure. She will remember, 25 years or so ago, the case of Harriet Harman v. the Home Office, which related to improper disclosure of documents. It seems to me that her conduct over the past few days in this matter, although understandable, is regrettable.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. and learned Gentleman raised the question of the case of Harman v. the Home Office, but what he omitted to say was that it was subsequently decided that I had not acted improperly. Perhaps I could remind the House, for those who cannot remember this case of 25 years ago, that it was decided I had not acted improperly in that case. I should like to set the record straight on that, in case anybody is putting two and two together and making five.

On the question of the internal workings of the Department, the local authority in question wrote to me and sought information about exactly what had happened prior to my being sent the judgment and after my having been sent the judgment. I responded to it, and copied this into the court. Having written to the local authority and sent a copy to the court, I do not think that it is right to give a partial version to this House. Therefore, I am giving the House the information in as full a form as that in which I gave it to the local authority and the court. It was in that spirit that I gave that information.

As former Law Officers will know, it is not at all unusual for Law Officers to take a preliminary view and then ask for a lawyer in their Department to give it further consideration. Indeed, leading counsel will often take a preliminary view and ask junior counsel to check it out. I am not resiling from or trying to shed responsibility—

Mr. Garnier: You are.

The Solicitor-General: No, I am not trying to shed responsibility. I am trying to explain the procedures. I hope that they will lead the House to reflect on and accept the fact that I acted in good faith and with due diligence, and that the interests of the child were not harmed, although there are some further issues that we need to consider in relation to the contempt proceedings and the relationship between Members of this House and our constituents.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I am sorry for any personal embarrassment that has been caused to my right hon. and learned Friend, as she does an excellent job in her post, and long may that continue. However, it occurs to me that the review of the criminal cases and the investigations of the decided family cases that are going on at the moment will put a lot of Departments and other organisations into a position of some conflict and doubt about whether to respond to the requests for information for the review and investigation, and about their duties under contempt of court rules. I wonder what the position is in terms of the Government requesting information or somebody else, such as the courts, giving some absolute advice to people so that that can be clear. Beyond that, I wonder whether this is

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a passing phase to do with the investigations following the Cannings decision or whether, bearing in mind that the Children Bill has just started its progress in the other place, a more general application needs to be considered for inclusion in that Bill before it makes it on to the statute book.

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