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Can legal support help parents of stillborn babies find answers with law not requiring coroners’ inquests ?

A major part of my work as a specialist in handling damages cases relating to medical negligence during pregnancy and birth is ensuring errors made in hospitals across England and Wales are fully investigated. On many occasion, parents have turned to our team at Hudgell Solicitors as their baby has been born with serious life-changing injuries, but they don’t understand why.

Parents have a feeling that they have not been told all the facts and that something, at some stage, went badly wrong.

It is in cases such as this that experienced lawyers can not only ask relevant questions, but can ensure all care provided is examined in great detail.

Patient records can be gathered and sent to specialists in the same medical field for their independent opinion, helping to build a clear picture of the care provided, and whether negligence played a part in the injuries suffered.

Such errors are certainly not always readily admitted by hospital trusts without independent examination. These errors prove expensive, as compensation settlements can quite rightly reach millions on pounds, given they often cover a life-time of care and support.

Crucially, alongside the vital financial and physical support for those we represent, our involvement also ensures lessons are learned. Legal cases often lead to new protocols being introduced to prevent the same mistakes being made again.

Detailed investigations are also automatically triggered when there is any suggestion of medical errors possibly contributing to the death of a patient, with coroners inquests held and full internal investigations conducted by health trusts.

Law in England and Wales does not require coroners’ inquests into stillborn babies

One situation where a death may not automatically trigger the same level of investigation is when a baby is stillborn.

This is because under the current law, coroners in England and Wales are unable to investigate a still birth (a baby born dead after 24 weeks of pregnancy) as they are not considered to be a ‘deceased person’.

It has led to the parents of a baby girl who was stillborn recently calling for change in law.

Their baby girl was born dead after a five-day labour last year, and following legal action the hospital has “apologised unreservedly” for shortcomings in care.

External investigations concluded there had been a number of failings, and that with more active monitoring during labour there may have been opportunities to identify earlier signs of distress and deterioration, and that intervention might have altered the outcome.

The parents have questioned whether these errors would ever have been uncovered had they not launched legal action and are calling for a full inquiry to investigate other baby deaths at the same Trust, looking into the standard of investigations.

It comes as the NHS says that incidents such as deaths in childbirth should be declared as Serious Untoward Incidents (SUIs) within 72 hours of the event, and that a full investigation report should be published 60 days from the event.

However, the family in this case say no SUI was launched until they complained to the hospital, and that it was 179 days before an SUI was launched.

Certainly, whilst Trusts will conduct their own reviews, there is a risk that some errors will slip through the net.

In Northern Ireland, the law states that a coroner ‘can carry out an inquest into the death of a stillborn child that had been capable of being born alive’ – a law which seems sensible and appropriate.

Legal investigations often uncover failings in medical care which have not been admitted

We often find internal investigations do not delve deep enough into the care provided, and in particular do not fully explore other potential outcomes had there been different treatment.

Parents are often in a difficult place at such challenging times in their lives also, so they find it difficult to question hospital trusts and managers.

They do have the right though to make a formal complaint and to seek legal advice and redress.

By instructing lawyers, it crucially ensures any possible failings in care be fully examined by independently recognised specialists in the same medical field.

Medical professionals are also made accountable for their actions, and the loss of one life could provide the valuable lesson needed to prevent another.

That should never be forgotten.

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