Landmark court decision gives go-ahead to stillbirth inquest

Siobhan Desmond interview part 1 /

By Kathryn Torney

THE Court of Appeal today issued a landmark ruling that a coroner can hold an inquest into the death of a baby boy who was stillborn in Altnagelvin Hospital in 2001.

Axel Desmond’s mother Siobhan said she was overwhelmed by today’s decision which meant that her son had now been recognised as a human being.

She said: “Axel’s legacy is that even the tiniest, most insignificant person can change attitudes and ideals by just being loved.”

Prior to today’s ruling, inquests have not been held into stillbirths anywhere in Britain and Ireland.

Axel died in October 2001. He was alive, moving and had a heart rate up to the moment his mother lost consciousness under anaesthetic for the caesarean delivery.

His death was one of the 112 stillbirths recorded in Northern Ireland in 2001.

In 2011 Siobhan agreed an out-of-court settlement with the Western Health and Social Care Trust. There was no admission of liability on behalf of the trust.

The settlement only acknowledged injuries suffered by Siobhan in her labour and Caesarean section operation. It took no account of the life or death of Axel; because he was stillborn, legally he didn’t count.

Siobhan has campaigned since 2001 for the deaths of her son and other stillborn children to be afforded the same level of enquiry as children who have died after drawing breath, allowing learning to come from the preventable deaths.

The Detail first reported on Siobhan’s case in June 2011.

In July 2012 the Attorney General John Larkin directed that an inquest should be held into Axel’s death after considering his case. However, senior coroner John Leckey said he believed that he would be acting outside of his legislative powers if he carried out an inquest into a stillborn baby.

In May of this year, a legal challenge by Mr Larkin against the coroner’s decision not to hold an inquest was dismissed. The judgement issued on May 8 by Mr Justice Treacy said that the ramifications of allowing inquests to take place into stillbirths would reverberate widely and would have implications in other areas like abortion, stem cell research, IVF and cloning.

Siobhan Desmond interview part 2 /

The Attorney General appealed against this decision and the outcome of that appeal was read out in Belfast’s Appeal Court this morning.

Central to the appeal was Section 18 of the 1959 Coroner’s Act which requires a coroner to summon a jury in an inquest for “child destruction” of a baby in its mother’s womb.

The appeal judges – Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan and Lord Justices Girvan and Coghlin – accepted the Attorney General’s argument that section 18 extended the definition of “deceased person” to include a foetus in the womb capable of being born alive.

They also said that there was “great force” in the submission made by the Royal College of Midwives that the guidance on stillbirth issued by the Department of Health should be “reviewed and reformulated as a matter of urgency”.

In an interview with The Detail after today’s hearing, Siobhan said: “I am very proud of our (legal) system today.

“I came out of the High Court today and I felt like a person who had been championed and my son had been championed. I am so grateful to the judges.

“I am overwhelmed by it because I did not allow myself to be this happy in the past 12 years.

“John Larkin said something which moved me so deeply. He said ‘he was one of us’.

“My son Axel went from being a stillborn or a foetus or a non-death to being recognised as a human being and I am so proud.

“I have no other children so Axel’s legacy is that even the tiniest, most insignificant person can change attitudes and ideals by just being loved.”

Speaking to The Detail, the Attorney General John Larkin said: “I want to offer my congratulations to Siobhan Desmond. This represents the culmination of a long and painful road for her to find out what happened to her son Axel.

“I am delighted to have played a part in securing an inquest that we need and wider society needs.

“This is also an example of journalism with impact. I was not long appointed as Attorney and I have to confess that I was not aware that it was not possible to have an inquest into a stillbirth.

“It was the space and quality of the space that The Detail devoted to Siobhan and Axel’s story that drew this to my attention.

“That led to me doing research, directing the inquest and to the litigation and happy outcome that we have at the Court of Appeal today.”

An inquest into a child who is ultimately deemed stillborn currently to date has only taken place when there is doubt about whether there was a still or live birth. If it is determined that a stillbirth has occurred, there is no further investigation by the coroner into the cause of death nor any consideration of what could be done differently in the future.

© The Detail 2013