The exercise follows the decision by Appeal judges to clear Wiltshire shop assistant Angela Cannings of murdering her two sons.
Harriet Harman said that there was a “serious, but not chaotic” situation following the Court of Appeal’s judgment and announced a fast-track process to deal with urgent criminal cases. In particular, she revealed that the cases of 258 parents convicted of killing their children would be re-examined. The Attorney General Lord Goldsmith later confirmed the number would be “much smaller”.
The Court of Appeal ruled that parents should not be prosecuted over the sudden unexplained death of a child where there was a possibility of cot death. It was explaining its previous decision last month to overturn the conviction of Angela Cannings, which rested on the evidence of controversial witness Professor Sir Roy Meadow. His contention that multiple cot deaths within one family were likely to be murder has been rejected in a series of recent cases including the successful appeal of Sally Clarke and the acquittal of Trupti Patel. In addition, doubt has also been cast on diagnoses of a condition known as Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, which was identified by Professor Meadow. The condition supposedly drives parents to harm their own children to attract attention to themselves.
Alison Straw, a family law partner at Irwin Mitchell and a member of the Law Society Children Panel for ten years, has advised on cases where the discredited expert’s opinion had been relied upon. She said that the recent revelations “sent a shiver through your bones”.
It has been reported that as many as 15 per cent of the cases of shaken-baby syndrome that have come before the courts could have been misdiagnosed by experts as murder. According to Alison Straw, such cases are rare and, in her experience, only two cases came up in 300-odd other childcare cases.
Ministers were consulting England’s top family judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, yesterday on how to identify cases where children were removed from their families and taken into care despite disagreement among experts over the risk posed by a parent.
“Clearly the burden of proof in the criminal proceedings and that in civil proceedings is very different,” Alison Straw said. “It has to be beyond all doubt to ensure a criminal conviction and, quite frankly, I don’t see his evidence in hindsight as being as reliable as it should be.”
However, the involvement of Professor Meadow will not be enough to undermine a case. “When you look back in the childcare arena, on the balance of probabilities I would say his evidence will still hold some weight in cases where there might be other aspects of the case which caused concern,” she said.
For those families where the child has been removed from the parents and placed within the wider family it might be possible to re-introduce the child, she added. “But the only option for younger babies will have been to place them outside the family and they may have already been put up for adoption,” Straw said; adding that an adoption order was “completely intractable”.