Ministers order review of experts in baby death cases

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The Independent Online

A review of the way expert witnesses are used in the family courts was ordered by ministers yesterday in an attempt to restore credibility to a tarnished system which has led to women being wrongly jailed for killing their babies.

A review of the way expert witnesses are used in the family courts was ordered by ministers yesterday in an attempt to restore credibility to a tarnished system which has led to women being wrongly jailed for killing their babies.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, will carry out the review following the discrediting of evidence by experts on child abuse against the mothers Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel.

The review was announced by Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, a day after the General Medical Council found that an expert witness in child protection cases, Professor David Southall, had abused his position by accusing a father of killing his babies on the basis of a television interview.

Sir Liam will examine the use of experts in court cases and the skills they need and draw up measures to ensure a sustainable supply of competent experts, said Mrs Hodge. He will report early in 2005.

Mrs Hodge said the Government's review would address "widespread concern" about the "quality and validity of evidence" given by medical expert witnesses in court.

She told the BBC that Sir Liam's review would help ensure sufficient expert witnesses were available to the courts.

"They play an important role in child proceedings and if we want to safeguard children properly, we need to have the best calibre medical witnesses," she said.

Felicity Collier, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said they were "very concerned" by difficulties in finding expert witnesses. "We must find doctors who are able to give this evidence and who are prepared to do so," she said.

The Court of Appeal decided to overturn Mrs Cannings' 2002 conviction for smothering her two sons after evidence from cot death expert Sir Roy Meadow was discredited. That triggered a review of similar cases where convictions had been obtained in spite of disputed evidence by expert witnesses. Ms Hodge said the results of the review which she had ordered to be carried out by local authorities showed that disputed medical evidence was a factor in 47 out of 5,175 cases.

In only one case had the local authority involved altered the way it dealt with a child as a result of the disputed evidence. In another 38, the case was not far enough advanced to know what the impact of the evidence would be.

In a written statement to Parliament, Ms Hodge said: "The results of this initial survey should not give rise to complacency that the interests of children and their families are being optimally served.

"We are therefore also announcing today a programme of work to determine how best to ensure the availability and quality of medical expert resources to the family courts."

Further research is under way into the cases of children already subject to care orders, and the results of this work are not expected for some time.

Ms Hodge has already announced an inquiry looking into the cases of 258 women convicted in the criminal courts of killing their babies. She said that concerns surrounding the reliability of medical evidence had "worsened the already acute problem" of finding experts who were willing to give testimony in family courts.

The shadow children's minister, Tim Loughton, said: "I remain concerned that all the reviews have been conducted entirely under the auspices of the local authorities who were key players in the original decisions, rather than through independent and objective outsiders.

"It is particularly worrying that there is such a large divergence between the number of cases reviewed by different authorities. Some are not undertaking any reviews at all.

"This will not inspire confidence that justice has now been done for every potential case of a child removed from parents unreasonably on questionable evidence."

Mr Loughton added: "The whole system is in danger of being brought into disrepute and risks a drastic shortage of professionals prepared to act as expert witnesses."