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Clinical negligence specialist joins calls for law change regarding unexpected baby deaths

A leading clinical negligence lawyer from law firm Leigh Day has joined calls for a change in the law to allow inquests to be held into the deaths of babies who die unexpectedly during labour or in the womb after 37 weeks gestation.

Coroner

6 October 2017

Parents Jack and Sarah Hawkins discussed the need for change to the law on the Radio 4 Today programme this morning following the death of their baby Harriet. 

Sarah described to the BBC how, despite a low risk pregnancy and a healthy baby, once she went into labour things began to go wrong. She had multiple contacts with healthcare professionals over six days before being told that Harriet had died in her womb. She was then left to go through nine hours of labour before Harriet was delivered. 

Jack and Sarah are calling for an inquest to be held into Harriet’s death which they believe should have been avoided with proper care. An inquest is held where there is a reasonable cause to consider that the death was unnatural, or if the cause of death is unknown (among other reasons). However, as Harriet was stillborn, a coroner has no power to hold an inquest under the current law in England and Wales. In contrast, if Harriet had taken a breath or shown signs of life at any time after delivery, an inquest could be held. 

Clinical negligence lawyer Stephen Jones is currently representing a family at an inquest which will be held early next year into the death of their baby who died as long ago as 2011. The death was initially classified as a stillbirth and as a result there was no post mortem or inquest; however, many years later the mother spotted a reference in the trust’s serious incident report to the baby having a heartbeat for a couple of minutes. She brought this to the coroner’s attention and, after initial investigation, the coroner opened an inquest. 

One of the important issues the coroner will have to consider at the inquest is whether the baby did indeed show signs of life, in which event the coroner can then properly determine how he died.  

If appropriate then the coroner can go on to determine whether there were any significant failings in care which contributed to the death and whether a prevention of future deaths report (PFD) should be issued if it appears there is a risk of other deaths occurring in similar circumstances. The PFD report is sent to the people or organisations who are in a position to take action to reduce this risk and they must reply within 56 days to say what action they plan to take. None of this is possible for a coroner in the case of a stillbirth.

Stephen Jones, partner in the clinical negligence team at Leigh Day, said: 

“Extending the law to allow the coroner to investigate when a baby dies unexpectedly during labour or in the womb after 37 weeks gestation - as Jack and Sarah Hawkins suggest - would remove what at the moment is a wholly arbitrary distinction. The difficulties of this distinction are stark for some of my current clients. 

“By changing the law it would provide an additional opportunity for patient safety concerns to be identified to ensure the same thing does not happen again and for lessons to be learnt from such tragic deaths. 

“Leigh Day fully supports the campaign to change the current state of the law which would allow both my clients, and Jack and Sarah Hawkins, to get the answers they deserve.”

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