Proposals for coroners to investigate late-term stillbirths would provide relief to grieving families
Last year, I settled a negligence case involving a stillbirth that could easily have been avoided. As for many other parents I have acted for, the financial settlement achieved on behalf of the family was less vital than the need to understand what happened and to highlight mistakes to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
I am sure the parents of baby Alexander, delivered stillborn in March 2017, will welcome the proposals this week to put out to public consultation the recommendation that Coroners should be able to hold an inquest into a stillbirth that occurs later than 37 weeks of pregnancy. Coroners can currently only hold inquests for babies who have shown signs of life after being born.
Such inquests would formally acknowledge the seriousness of this loss by fully investigating what happened to cause such tragedy. The purpose of an Inquest is a fact finding exercise, to answer 4 basic questions: who died, where and when they died, and, most importantly, how they died. Such investigation would entail detailed medical evidence to be heard in public and provide much-needed answers to parents who, understandably often blame themselves.
In the case of baby Alexander, the hospital trust in charge of Guy's and St Thomas' launched an internal investigation that criticised the treatment received by Alexander's mother, Ana Maria, during her induction process. The report acknowledged that there had been a "significant opportunity to change the outcome in this case, and that if the woman had been taken to theatre and Alexander delivered earlier, he would have been born alive."
Such internal investigations are mandatory in a case like this but it is often only by pursuing litigation that parents receive detailed information, evidence and an apology from a hospital trust. Having a Coroner also investigate a stillbirth would provide honest answers from an independent investigation, with the gravitas of a legal court. It should also speed up the process of civil claim and allow parents the time to properly grieve.
Our work with the Foundation for Infant Loss, a charity supported by Fieldfisher, clearly demonstrates how important it is for people who are grieving to be given clear answers. Only then can they have any hope of rebuilding shattered lives.
Going through an inquest is a traumatic process, forcing families to relive events that caused a death. But, as health minister Jackie Doyle-Price said in the Guardian, only by continually learning how to improve care will fewer people experience the tragedy of losing a child.
An inquest will provide the information vital to improving care. It will provide the forum for bereaved families to have their voices heard and support the people who need it most.
The Department of Health will now consult jointly on the proposals with the Ministry of Justice. The Government has stated it is committed to halve the number of stillbirths in the UK by 2025.