HL Deb 07 January 2004 vol 657 cc172-5

2.52 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Lord Chancellor will discuss with the Lord Chief Justice the recent overturning of certain convictions in relation to babies in cot deaths.

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith)

My Lords, acute public concern has been raised about prosecutions for homicide offences in relation to cases of sudden infant deaths, particularly in the light of three recent high profile cases. While the Lord Chancellor has regular discussions with the Lord Chief Justice about the proper administration of justice throughout the courts, he has no role in reviewing judicial decisions, whether generally or specifically in relation to cot deaths.

However, as Attorney-General, I have taken action to review the implications of the cases, with the support of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The action that I have taken includes establishing an interdepartmental group that is identifying and has already started to review relevant past cases.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the Attorney-General for that helpful reply. Does he agree that it is a poor reflection on British justice that Sally Clark, Trupti Patel and Angela Cannings should have gone through hell for child murders that they did not commit? They were put through hell on the basis of the evidence of the expert witness Sir Roy Meadows, and statistical evidence that the Royal Statistical Society wrote to the Lord Chancellor to say had no statistical basis.

How many cases are there of women in prison convicted in relation to cot deaths, and of women who have been through the family courts and been separated from their children, with both categories being based on evidence by Sir Roy Meadows or experts using similar methods? Some people have said that there could be up to 250 cases. Is it not vital that the review that the Attorney-General is undertaking happens very quickly? Does there not appear to be some need to advise the courts that convictions need to be based on hard evidence, not statistical probabilities or checklists of psychological symptoms?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I of course entirely agree that the effects on mothers and their families of tragically losing children and then being accused or—worse still—convicted, in the event wrongly, of their murder are devastating. Obviously, it is the job of our police and child protection agencies to protect vulnerable children who are unable to protect themselves. The consequences of not acting or acting without due cause can be devastating, which is why it is so important to look very thoroughly at the implications of the cases.

That is why I moved swiftly after the Sally Clark verdict to establish the group. It is already reviewing 50 cases that concern the evidence of Dr Williams. We have not had the judgment yet in the Cannings case—it is expected shortly—but I have already asked the group to identify cases of sudden deaths of infants in the past 10 years. However, there is no central database.

There are different issues in relation to family cases, as the Crown is not a party to those. My interdepartmental review is concerned with criminal cases, and I cannot at the moment say how many cases there are. I shall try to write to the noble Lord when I can. However, I entirely agree that the issue is very important, which is why I have taken such action.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord look very seriously at the matter? He knows that I have raised it a number of times in the House. We estimate that about 5,000 parents have had their children removed from them, with accusations of Munchausen syndrome by proxy held over their heads. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, said that there was no connection between the death cases that came up in court and of which the mothers have been exonerated and the cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. However, there is: Professor Sir Roy Meadows invented Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

In view of the tenuous stickability of Professor Meadows's evidence, will the noble and learned Lord look at the cases and at the functioning of the family courts, which is behind closed doors with no appeal? The women are absolutely desperate, because they cannot get employment. That is what is so dreadful.

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, I am very well aware of the close and important interest that the noble Countess has in the issue. We need to consider the findings of the interdepartmental review into the criminal cases, to which I have referred. The Ministers responsible for family cases—the Minister for Children and the Ministers from the Department for Constitutional Affairs—will look very carefully at that, too. They will look carefully at the judgment in the Cannings case, which will be very important when it comes out shortly. They will consider what, if anything, can and should be done in relation to any family cases, particularly those in which evidence from Professor Meadows was adduced.

The noble Countess said that there was no appeal in family cases. As I said a moment ago, the Crown is not usually a party, but a local authority might be. Evidence will normally have been called by a private party. Where a private party believes that evidence was given that was determinative and affected the outcome, it may very well be open to that person to bring an appeal even now against the order. However, I have noted the noble Countess's comments, and so have other Ministers.

Lord Ackner

My Lords—

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the three criminal cases raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, highlight particular issues about the quality, peer review and disclosure of evidence of pathologists and other medical scientists in criminal cases? In the light of that, will the noble and learned Lord assure the House that the Crown Prosecution Service is urgently reviewing its pre-trial scrutiny of the quality of such evidence? Will the Government consider inviting the judges to exercise stronger case-management disciplines in dealing with such evidence before it ever reaches a jury?

Lord Goldsmith

My Lords, the issues that the noble Lord raises are certainly very important. I can make three comments. First, the Home Office pathology advisory board will publish new codes of practice that will deal with the judicial comments made in the Sally Clark case. That relates particularly to the noble Lord's disclosure question. Secondly, I have asked my group to consider the general implications of the cases. Thirdly, noble Lords are aware of the intercollegiate working group on which the Department of Health sits, but which is chaired by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. It is also looking at the issues. Regarding the Crown Prosecution Service, it will of course continue to operate on the basis of looking for real evidence—that is the code that is required. Regarding case management, as a Government we are very much in favour of judicial case management. I assure the noble Lord that, in any event, where judges see evidence before them which they do not think is adequate, they are not slow to make that point.

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