Thousands of parents whose children were taken into care because of fears they may harm them could have their cases reopened as part of a government review into cot- death murder convictions.
Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, and the country's senior family court judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, are to meet Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children, to consider an examination of an estimated 5,000 care cases that may have been decided in error.
Yesterday's announcement follows a decision to investigate the cases of 258 women convicted of murdering their babies over the past 10 years.
The inquiry was prompted by a Court of Appeal ruling that parents should not be prosecuted over the sudden unexplained death of a child where cot death was a possibility.
Giving their reasons on Monday for overturning the conviction of Angela Cannings, 40, for murdering her two baby sons, the judges said medical science was "still at the frontiers of knowledge" about unexplained infant deaths.
Ms Harman told the House of Commons yesterday that it was not known how many parents had lost their children as a result of civil care proceedings in which expert evidence was decisive. Her announcement that the review might consider civil cases as well as criminal convictions raised the prospect of hundreds of families being reunited, in some cases after many years of separation. But a spokeswoman for Ms Harman said more work needed to be done before a final decision could be reached on how best to proceed with the civil cases. She said that many of the cases were private legal actions brought in the family courts many years ago where the state had had no involvement. "This is a very complex area and no final decisions have been taken. The interests of the children will be paramount," she added.
Many children would be happily settled with their new adoptive families, she suggested. But lawyers specialising in such cases said that even where it was not possible to reopen the case, children still had the right to know the circumstances upon which they were given up for adoption.
Responding to an urgent parliamentary question on the Appeal Court ruling, Ms Harman told MPs: "We will make sure that we recognise that not only injustices done in the criminal justice system but any potential injustices in care proceedings are identified and acted on." Ms Harman assured MPs that the review would ensure that "justice will ultimately be done" for women wrongly convicted of murdering their children. Priority would be given to 54 women currently serving prison sentences, some of whom may be released on bail pending their appeals.
"If any case is identified as meeting the criteria laid out by the Court of Appeal in the Cannings case then there would be an immediate application for bail and my expectation is it would not be resisted," she said.
Women whose appeals have previously been rejected will be dealt with as a matter of urgency by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), while others would go straight to the Appeal Court. The new Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, is to personally handle all sudden infant death syndrome cases that have yet to come to trial.
Mr Macdonald said: "I have asked all the Chief Crown Prosecutors who have identified cases involving an unexplained infant death of the sort described in Monday's judgment in their area to review them within 28 days. I will then personally review any cases that the CCP wishes to pursue before making a final decision on whether to prosecute."
The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, will meet the CCRC chairman, Professor Graham Zellick, on Friday to discuss the review. The shadow Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, said the Conservatives would do everything they could to help any review "which leads to the removal of miscarriages of justice".
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