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I thank the hon. Gentleman for thanking us for giving prior notice of the report. Generally speaking, that is how we work. Whatever else he gets up to in other parts of his work, we have a non-partisan relationship, and similarly with the Liberal Democrats, on Law Officer matters. I thank him also for saying that the Attorney-General's report is a model of its kind. It is.
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It is important to bear it in mind that many people said, "Let sleeping dogs lie. The Court of Appeal has given its judgment. If somebody knows that they are one of these cases, let them take it up. Don't go to all the time, trouble and expense of looking for a needle in a haystack, going back 10 years and involving every part of the country." We were clearly of the view that we had to do more than wait for people themselves to say, "Has there been a problem with the case?". We wanted to ensure that no stone was left unturned, that we identified similar cases and that we actively reviewed them and referred those where there was concern.
Of the 28 cases where there was concern, three were sudden infant death syndrome cases, while the 25 were not directly analogous to the Cannings case. The hon. Gentleman asked me what sort of cases they were. They were cases where there were other issues of difference of view or concern about medical expert evidence. For example, there is damage to the child's head, internal and external, and experts differ as to whether it was caused by a blow or by a fall. The House will understand that that is not analogous to the Cannings case. It is where there is not evidence other than the evidence of experts and where the experts disagree, but where it is not sudden infant death.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 89 shaken baby syndrome cases. As the law stands, these cases should not give us cause for disquiet in terms of what has been said so far by the Court of Appeal. As the law stands, these cases need no further action. There is a shaken baby case that we have referred. We are not saying that we will not refer. If there is cause for concern and if it is a shaken baby case, we will refer it. However, there are cases where, pending what the Court of Appeal says, we see no further need for action at this stage. Having gone to the effort of identifying these cases, we are bearing it in mind that, depending on the guidance that the Court of Appeal gives, we may need to consider them again. If we are to do that, we shall make a statement to the House. That will be by way of a written statement, or an answer to a question asked by the hon. Gentleman, or an oral statement.
During these proceedings we have tried to work with our opposite numbers and to keep the House informed. I made an oral statement in January, we made written statements and parliamentary answers were given in February, May and July. We have tried to keep the House up to date with the process.
The hon. Gentleman asked about cases that are more than 10 years old. There was one such case where the defendant asked us to consider it, and of course we did. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that any cut-off point is arbitrary. I think that in future the process will be easier. God forbid we should ever have this situation in future, but things will be easier in future because we have computerised records. Going back two years and even five years, let alone 10 years, when the personnel involved had changed and all the manual records had been filed, was an exhausting job. It was like looking for needles in a haystack through the 42 areas of the Crown Prosecution Service. I thank CPS staff for the work they did, together with their colleagues in the police and in the Home Office. It was difficult to be satisfied that we had found all the cases going back 10 years. I am
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satisfied that we have now done so. Even now, if anybody thinks their case is one of those, whether it is within or beyond the 10-year period, they can refer it for examination and we will look at it. There are facilities available to help. The Attorney-General has asked the central review team to look at these cases in the interests of justice. If somebody wants to know whether theirs is such a case, the Attorney-General will ask the central review team to examine it.
Of course expert evidencethe hon. Gentleman made an important point in this regardshould not stray into giving opinion. We can all understand the situation when there has been a robbery, somebody saw somebody doing it and there is a question of identification. Was it that person? Is the person who said something telling the truth? Everybody is used to that in court and everyone understands the situation. Forensic science offers the criminal justice system and the quest for justiceensuring that guilty people are brought to accountgreat opportunities that did not exist previously. For example, a rape case where the victim had died could be prosecuted because of forensic DNA evidence. We should recognise the importance and value of expert evidence, but have protocols in place to ensure that it is of the proper quality and provides scientific fact, rather than opinion.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): I look forward to reading the Attorney-General's review. It seems to be a meticulous piece of work. Does that review, which looks at the work of experts at the cutting edge of science, have implications for how expert evidence is treated in public law, particularly in the law relating to the protection of children? Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Government will act to support the role of expert witnesses, who have a key role in protecting children and who, within the limits of their competence and acting in good faith, can assist enormously and should not be deterred from acting in public law cases where the paramount consideration is the protection of children?
The Solicitor-General: I can reinforce my hon. Friend's point about the key role of expert witnesses in family cases. As he rightly acknowledges, we looked at expert witnesses in criminal cases, but he will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families has been looking at the question of expert witnesses giving evidence in family proceedings where the issue is whether the child should be subject to a care order, taken away from the parents or placed for adoption. Expert witnesses have an important role in family proceedings. It is important not only that their role is recognised but that the experts are available and suitably qualified and their competence is kept under review, so that individuals can be certain that justice has been done in their case, and there can be public confidence in the expert witness system.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon) (LD):
I, too, am grateful to the Solicitor-General for letting me have early sight of the Attorney-General's statement and of the Attorney-General's and review team's reports. The House will have noted the correct distancing of the central review team from the prosecuting process, and the decision to review
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convictions up to 10 years old, the scrutiny of the deceased child cases involving children up to two years old, and the fact that all cases were reviewed, not just those in which there had been two instances of death in the family.
I join the Solicitor-General in paying tribute to the central review team, particularly Howard Cohen, the project manager, Mr. Price, QC, and the Director of Public Prosecutions, whose co-operation was essential to the review.
Before I reach what I consider the heart of the matter, I have one or two initial questions on the statement. First, when will what I shall call the Dr. Alan Williams report be concluded and when will it be placed in the Library of the House? Will the Solicitor-General make a statement when the report is concluded? Secondly, I understand that Dr. Alan Williams and Professor Sir Roy Meadow are subject to proceedings before the General Medical Council and I would be grateful if she confirmed that and told the House whether she has any idea when these proceedings are to be heard. Thirdly, will she confirm that there is no bar on any case, even on one more than 10 years old, being appealed to the Court of Appealor, for that matter, to the CCRC?
It is difficult to conceive of anything more tragic to parents than the death of a child. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, these tragedies have been compounded by what have turned out to be dreadful miscarriages of justice in the family courts and thereafter in the criminal courts. Two strong principles have to be balanced: the right of parents to have care of their children and the rights of the children themselves. The right of any child must be paramount and I hope that everyone in the House understands and agrees with that. Nevertheless, there have been some appalling miscarriages of justice that call for further safeguards.
At the very core of the problem is the credibility, expertise and conscientiousness of medical expert witnesses. The House will know the difference between proceedings in the criminal and in the family courts. It is right that, in the family courts, the standard of proof is the balance of probabilities, which enables those courts to be a less adversarial forum and ensures that the interests of the child come first. Having said that, I believe that it should be open to parents in family proceedings to challenge the competency and the evidence of expert witnesses. That could also be done in the criminal courts, and it is a change that would ensure greater fairness in family proceedings.
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