Attorney General seeks access to hospital death records

Northern Ireland's Attorney General, John Larkin

Northern Ireland's Attorney General, John Larkin

By Niall McCracken

HOSPITALS could be forced to surrender documents and computer records on controversial deaths under new investigative powers being sought by Northern Ireland’s Attorney General.

John Larkin’s intervention comes as a string of hospital tragedies in the Northern Health Trust, including child deaths and the failure to report serious incidents to the coroner, are under scrutiny after a major review was launched by Health Minister Edwin Poots.

Today, The Detail can reveal that the Attorney General wrote to the Assembly’s Justice Committee last month alerting them to a weakness in the legislation that means his office has no power to secure access to trusts’ confidential documents, such as Serious Adverse Incident reports.

In the letter John Larkin said granting him such powers “could be of considerable benefit to the public” and he outlines how an amendment to the new law could be drafted to incorporate this. This includes that a person who fails “without reasonable excuse” to comply with the new requirement would be guilty of an offence and would face conviction and a fine.

Mr Larkin is chief legal advisor to the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Attorney General can direct the coroner to hold an inquest into deaths where he “considers it advisable to do so”, but his letter states that he lacks the necessary powers to “obtain papers or information that may be relevant to the exercise of that power”.

Mr Larkin has asked MLAs drafting new coroners’ legislation to arm him with the power to compel the release of documents and computer files. This would put a statutory obligation on health trusts to disclose such information when requested by his office.

Such reforms would be a radical change but they come against the background of growing demands for an overhaul of the system of reporting and investigating deaths in hospitals here.

Mr Larkin’s comments come in the wake of revelations by The Detail that almost 60 deaths over a three year period were not immediately reported to the coroner by hospitals here in recent years, despite a legal obligation to do so. Read this story here.

The Detail also previously interviewed the family of a man whose death is one of 11 currently under investigation within the Northern Trust area.

Eighty-one year old Neil Cormican died in April 2010 after he was mistakenly prescribed potassium while being treated at Antrim Area Hospital.

It was weeks before the Coroner’s Service was made aware of his death and six months before it was reported as a Serious Adverse Incident (SAI).

SAIs are incidents deemed serious enough to require regional action to improve safety, or be of major public concern or require an independent review. There is currently no requirement under the Serious Adverse Incident procedure to inform the coroner of a death resulting from a SAI.

However if the suggested recommendations by the Attorney General were to be implemented, it could see his office scrutinising the paper work relating to all SAI deaths and on that basis directing an inquest where it is deemed further investigation is needed.

Another death being investigated is that of a baby girl who died at Antrim Area Hospital in 2008 because there was no theatre available to perform an emergency section.

Baby Erin McAuley was 20 hours old when she died. In an interview with UTV her father Chris said he and his wife Louise were left devastated.

Mr McAuley said: “I knew that night in that hospital that wasn’t childbirth, that wasn’t right. The panic on people’s faces, the information coming from the doctors that night… about theatres not being ready.”

In his letter dated March 5 2014 and addressed to the Justice Committee Chair Paul Givan, Mr Larkin suggests a potential amendment to the Legal Aid and Coroner’s Courts Bill which was introduced to the Assembly earlier this week.

Mr Larkin wrote: “In recent years I have had some difficulty in securing access to documents, such as Serious Adverse Incident report forms, which I have needed from Health and Social Care Trusts.

“As there is no specific legal duty on Trusts to disclose what would otherwise be confidential material, it is understandable that there is some nervousness on the part of the Trusts’ lawyers in sharing such materials with me.

“An amendment to the 1959 Act could confer a power on the Attorney General to obtain papers. This would provide a clear statutory basis for disclosure.”

The letter ends with an offer from the Attorney General to speak to the committee on the matter saying the “focus of my concern is principally with deaths that occur in hospital or where there is otherwise a suggestion that medical error may have occurred”.