HC Deb 20 January 2004 vol 416 cc1215-23 12.32 pm
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)(Con)

(urgent question): To ask the Solicitor-General to make a statement on the review of criminal cases resulting from the decision of the Court of Appeal in the case of Angela Cannings.

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman)

Yesterday's judgment in the Court of Appeal in the appeal against conviction of Angela Cannings has serious and far-reaching implications. The Court of Appeal said that, in relation to unexplained infant deaths when the outcome of the trial depended exclusively or almost exclusively on a serious disagreement between distinguished and reputable experts, it would often be unsafe to proceed. We are acting on that judgment.

In December, when the Court of Appeal freed Angela Cannings, we asked for all cases that potentially involved sudden infant death syndrome to be identified as quickly as possible. To date, some 258 convictions, reaching back over the past 10 years, for murder, manslaughter or infanticide of an infant aged under two years by its parent, have been identified. Those cases will be considered further as a matter of urgency to establish how many were convictions that the Court of Appeal judgment yesterday indicated may be unsafe. We expect the process to be completed swiftly in the coming weeks.

We propose that in all cases that appear to fulfil the criteria that the Court of Appeal laid down, the convicted person will be informed of developments immediately. There are then two possible routes. Either the case will be referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission or the convicted person, with legal advice, can appeal out of time to the Court of Appeal. Under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, the CCRC has the power to consider whether the convictions should be referred to the Court of Appeal.

The Attorney-General has made it clear that we are especially concerned about cases in which the convicted person is still in prison. So far, we have identified 54 prisoners whose cases may involve sudden infant death syndrome. They will receive the highest priority. The Attorney-General has already spoken to the chair of the CCRC and will meet him on Friday to discuss further the way in which the review of the cases can be expedited. We have also asked the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct a review of the 15 current cases that involve prosecutions for unexplained infant death.

Mr. Grieve

I am grateful for the Solicitor-General's statement and join the Attorney-General in acknowledging that yesterday's decision has serious and far-reaching implications. No one could describe that as an overstatement. We on this side of the House will do everything open to us to co-operate with the Government in facilitating any review that leads to the removal of miscarriages of justice. This is not a party political issue in any way whatsoever.

Law Officers will clearly have intermittent involvement in the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Has the CCRC given any indication of how long it will take, as the first priority, to examine the 54 cases in which people are still in prison? I am sure that the Solicitor-General agrees that the 204 other cases have degrees of urgency attaching to them. Although the individuals involved may not be in custody, the stigma of conviction is over their heads—with potentially far-reaching implications for their abilities as families to be allowed to bring up children in future. In some cases, there are likely to be proceedings pending to remove or potentially to remove children born to them soon after birth. That means prioritisation and speed are essential.

In an interview at the weekend, the Minister for Children used the expression "tens of thousands" of cases, although elsewhere I have seen the figure of 5,000. Some clarification would be helpful. Is it suggested that Law Officers have recommended that a judge should be appointed to trawl those cases—as was apparently floated in the Minister for Children's interview in The Sunday Telegraph at the weekend?

What will be the role of the decisions of the General Medical Council in relation to Professor Meadow—which, it has been suggested, will not be made until the autumn? Will that introduce a mechanism of delay in reviewing any of the cases, whether civil or criminal? Can the Solicitor-General help the House in relation to that matter? I am sure she agrees that delay could be critical. It may still be possible in some instances for children recently removed from their families to be returned. In other cases, as the Minister for Children explained in her interview at the weekend, that may not be possible. Each case will be different and involves a degree of urgency. The public and Parliament hope that some reassurance can be given that a system exists to bring order out of what I appreciate is an extremely chaotic state of affairs.

I am sure that the Minister for Children gave her interview with the best of intentions in providing some reassurance before yesterday's decision, but there are on the Order Paper outstanding questions from hon. Members dating from before Christmas, including from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)—questions that have not received answers, notwithstanding public pronouncements by Ministers. It would be extremely helpful in providing reassurance for the future if those questions received speedy replies, rather than right hon. and hon. Members finding some of the points that they have raised touched upon in newspaper articles. I believe that letters from Lord Howe in the other place to the Lord Chancellor's Department last December have still not yet been answered.

The Solicitor-General may have no difficulty agreeing with the comments of Lord Justice Judge that in any civilised community, the conviction of the innocent is abhorrent. Is not this whole episode, therefore, a chilling reminder of the difficulty caused by the fallibility of human justice systems and the extreme difficulty that can occur when a desire to ensure that the legal system serves the victim starts to lead to assumptions against those who are tried? In this case, that has happened by means of expert evidence. Will the Solicitor-General gently remind her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has in the past made pronouncements in the House on the need to move the criminal justice system so that it is more in favour of the victim, that if that leads to miscarriages of justice, the consequences do not serve the interests of justice but are in danger of bringing the whole system into disrepute?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of important questions, and I shall try to deal with all of them. He asked for an indication of how long the CCRC would take before it made a decision to refer a case to the Court of Appeal. He will know that the CCRC will need to look at the transcripts of a case to satisfy itself on whether the conviction was based on expert evidence or whether other evidence led to the conviction. I can reassure him and the House that there will be a fast-track process, because we recognise, as do the CCRC and the Court of Appeal, that the situation is urgent.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that those cases in which the convicted person is not in prison are still urgent and serious, for the reasons that he gave. Those cases may have involved not only criminal proceedings but care proceedings, and we will therefore look at them with urgency. However, I assure him that although the situation is serious, it is not chaotic. A number of actions are under way—what I would call the sensible ones—and are being taken immediately. We are working with the president of the family division, the Court of Appeal, the CCRC, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and a range of other bodies on that. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's offer to contribute, with his expertise and background knowledge, and I extend that welcome to all hon. Members.

On keeping the House informed and answering parliamentary questions, we started our work in December because we heard the oral comments given by the Court of Appeal when it freed Angela Cannings, but the written judgment that maps out what we need to do next came only yesterday. I will ensure that all parliamentary questions, whether to the DCA, my Department or the Minister for Children, are answered properly and promptly. More than that, we will keep the House informed by written statements as we refine the numbers and reach a better understanding of the situation.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we should generalise from the judgment of the Court of Appeal in this case to the criminal justice system as a whole. We are always concerned to ensure that no one is convicted of an offence that they did not commit. We always bear that in mind, but in this case and in these proceedings, we have work to do. We shall look at the convictions and ensure that if there has been an injustice, justice will ultimately be done, even though for many it will be many years too late.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)(LD)

No one can fail to be moved by the predicament of any victim of a miscarriage of justice, but it is difficult to imagine any more dreadful case than this in which to have to endure an unwarranted prosecution, let alone a conviction. The Attorney-General has acted swiftly, as he should, to enable challenges to be made to unsafe verdicts. Will the Solicitor-General confirm that all reasonable costs of any appellant, in civil as well as criminal cases, will be met by the Crown on a full indemnity basis? Nothing can compensate anyone for a wrongful prosecution, let alone for a wrongful conviction, but can the Solicitor-General confirm that reasonable compensation will be paid in the appropriate cases, and that it will not be subject to taxation?

There are also lessons to be learned in respect of other cases in other legal disciplines. Will the Solicitor-General tell the House what action she and the Attorney-General are taking in relation to those other convictions in which expert evidence has not only weighed heavily in the verdict, but has been decisive?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of costs, compensation and taxation. We are considering those issues and we will address them. I cannot provide detailed answers now, but I will ensure that the House is informed as soon as possible. At the moment, we are focusing on dealing with cases in which people are in prison, or proceedings are under way.

I omitted to answer some of the questions that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked about family proceedings. I am afraid that we are not in a position to say in how many care proceedings cases the evidence of experts has proved decisive. But in Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss we have the benefit of an exceptional president of the family division, and we have the support of the Law Society and of many other organisations. We will ensure not only that injustices in the criminal justice system, but that any potential injustices in care proceedings are identified and acted on.

We should recognise that for women who have lost a child and then had another child taken away, prison is no penalty compared with the terrible suffering that they have endured. As we deal straight away with those in prison and those involved in criminal processes, we must bear in mind the absolute and utmost gravity of the situation facing those whose injustice is at the hands not of the criminal justice system, but of the family justice system.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)(Lab)

About a third of a century ago, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Health. I have the clear recollection that the then distinguished chief medical officer, Sir George Godber, and his deputy, Dr. Henry Yellowlees, submitted a long statement on all the difficulties and uncertainties associated with infanticide and cot death. At what point were the certainties developed that could lead Sir Roy Meadow to say that there is a one in 73 million chance in these situations? Why not say that there is a one in 50 million chance, or a one in 100 million chance? How does a statistician reach such certainties in these circumstances? At what stage were those certainties introduced, by whom and on what basis?

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 wisdom of the time, as I remember personally. I should like to pay tribute to the Foundation for the Study of Sudden Infant Deaths, which campaigned along with many others to open up the possibility that such deaths were not at the hands of the mother, but might have come about through natural causes.

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 and—thank God—back 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 amateur—that 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 Panel—now the Sentencing Guidelines Council—and 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 long—we all agree on that—but 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 know her family well. She is right to say that we will face difficult decisions, but I can assure her that we will work in the most open way possible with hon. Members on both sides of the House and across all Departments and agencies. The most important thing is to be clear, open and act as quickly as possible.

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 evidence—for 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 judgment—where 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 Court of Appeal said: we recognise that justice may not be done in a small number of cases where in truth a mother has deliberately killed her baby without leaving any identifiable evidence of the crime. That is an undesirable result, which, however, avoids a worse one. If murder cannot not be proved, the conviction cannot be safe.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

In trying to chart the incredibly difficult course around the circumstances of children who are so profoundly affected by decisions taken on the balance of probabilities, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the balance of argument in reaching decisions will be weighted heavily towards the paramount principle of the Children Act 1989—that the best interest of the child is the key factor? In trying to chart a way forward from this unprecedented position, will she also assure me that due cognisance will be given to the rights of every individual child under the UN convention on the rights of the child?

The Solicitor-General

In relation to actions arising from miscarriages of justice in family or care proceedings, the rule of the Children Act 1989—that any action taken should be in the best interests of the child—will, 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 that they were not in the wrong. Although it may not be in the best interest of a child who has grown up in another household to be given back, it should be made clear, where applicable, that the mothers have done nothing wrong. We must be utterly and acutely sensitive to all those points. In dealing with those issues, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equality is taking the UN convention on the rights of the child and the rights of children to family life into account.

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 Cannings—in a criminal case—we 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 cases—and the machinery that should be used to remedy miscarriages of justice—is 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?

The Solicitor-General

My hon. and learned Friend asked about the significance of the GMC inquiry, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield for failing to respond to him initially about that. In the Sally Clark case, the Court of Appeal judgment was based on the weight that it felt should have been given to Dr. Williams' evidence, and that is the judgment that the prosecutors need. In respect of Professor Meadow and other experts, we also have the Court of Appeal judgment in the Angela Cannings case, so we do not need to wait for the GMC. Whether or not the GMC finds that Dr. Williams committed offences against his professional code of conduct is an entirely separate matter, as we are proceeding on the basis of the Court of Appeal judgments in the Cannings and Clark cases. Obviously, we will consider any further issues that the GMC is able to raise, but the two judgments to which I have referred provide the basis for the action that we are taking now. We are not in any way waiting for the outcome of the GMC inquiry.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

Will the Solicitor-General assure the House that she agrees that medical opinion is just that—an opinion—however eminent the person giving it, and that it should never be used as sole evidence in a case? I fully appreciate how difficult it is to strike a balance between the safety of a child and the rights of a parent, but is the right hon. and learned Lady able to consider releasing from prison, under supervision, the women affected by the inquiry, while it is under way?

The Solicitor-General

Any case that meets the criteria laid out by the Court of Appeal in the Cannings case would allow an immediate application for bail to be made. My expectation would be that that application would not be resisted. I think that the question of the liberty of people involved in the inquiry before the Court of Appeal judgment is known would be dealt with in that way.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) is a medical person herself, and her question about medical evidence covers the topic of expert evidence. I can tell the House that my noble Friend Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws is presiding over an intercollegiate working party, involving the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. The working party also has representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Home Office pathology department. The group has been working for some time and will produce its guidance shortly. The matter needs to be looked at by the professions involved, jointly with the criminal and civil justice system. That is what is happening, and I think that, as a result, guidance on how we should deal with family cases will be clearer.