Mother calls for inquiry chairman to resign

Marie Ferguson's daughter Raychel died in Altnagelvin in 1999

Marie Ferguson's daughter Raychel died in Altnagelvin in 1999

THE mother of one the children being investigated by the Inquiry into Hyponatraemia-Related Deaths has called for chairman John O’Hara QC to resign.

This follows news of further delays in the child death inquiry.

Marie Ferguson’s daughter Raychel died in 2001 aged nine following an appendectomy at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry.

A statement issued by inquiry chairman, John O’Hara QC, issued last night (Tuesday) to representatives of the five children who died of suspected fluid overload said the opening addresses would now take place on Monday the 26th March.

This sets the opening phase of the inquiry back five weeks. Last week Mr O’Hara told a hearing that any hold-ups at this stage would not prevent the inquiry from finishing public evidence as envisaged in November and his statement reiterates this view.

Speaking To The Detail, Marie Ferguson said she didn’t believe the chairman was taking the feelings of the families into consideration.

She said: "I honestly think he is not the man for the job and he should resign, this should have been sorted out long ago. Any questions surrounding the witnesses should be fleshed out in the inquiry itself.

“It has been delay after delay, I think this is the third or fourth version of the timetable and I believe it will change again.

“There is no guarantee that the dates he has announced will stick because what if after the latest meeting of experts suddenly there are more issues to explore and before you know it we have more delays yet again. At this rate I honestly believe it will be 2013 before the inquiry concludes.”

Derry solicitor Des Doherty, who represents Mrs Ferguson, also represented one of the families involved in The Saville Inquiry. He believes the latest delays have changed the families feelings of frustration into anger.

He said: "It’s extremely disheartening for all the families. From my own experience of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry there were conflicting accounts from expert witnesses dating back to 1999, but we got on with it and dealt with it in the process of the inquiry.

“The reality is no inquiry is perfect. Justice isn’t even perfect. You just have to do the best with what you have and at the minute we are being prevented from doing that.

“The families can’t wait forever to hear what happened to their children.”

The public hearings were delayed in November last year when the inquiry was made aware of new documents discovered by the Belfast Trust.

The schedule for the inquiry was suppose to see it run from February 20th until November 19th this year.

Last week the chairman announced that he would be adjourning proceedings following fresh evidence by a new senior expert witness who had cast doubt on whether hyponatraemia was the cause of Adam’s death.

Following their meeting last week, inquiry experts are due to meet once again on Friday 9th March.

As a result the opening addresses in Adam Strain’s case will now be on Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th March with oral evidence starting on the 16th April for four weeks. Marie Ferguson said she understands that these issues need to be explored.

“I understand the position of the family of Adam Strain and they have to get the case for their little boy and the circumstances surrounding that right, but lets explore these issues through an open inquiry.”

Speaking of the delay the inquiry chairman stated : “I regret this development but I see it as unavoidable in light of the developments which are referred to above.”

The family of Adam Strain issued a statement today (Wednesday) stating that they retained confidence in the ability of Mr O`Hara to complete the Inquiry. Through the family solicitor David Hunter, of Hunter Associates, Coleraine, they said: “What matters now is that the inquiry proceeds in accordance with the recent announcement.”

A progress hearing was due to take place in Banbridge court house this Thursday (1st March), but this too has been cancelled to allow inquiry experts an opportunity to discuss further issues raised at the previous progress hearing.

The inquiry was set up to investigate the deaths of five children who died in hospitals in Northern Ireland between 1995 and 2003. Each of the children’s intravenous fluid regime is implicated in the deaths; it is said to have caused low sodium – hyponatraemia – in four of the children, which in turn caused lethal severe brain swelling.

The children are:

Adam Strain who died in November 1995, aged four years, in the course of a kidney transplant at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children;

Claire Roberts who died in October 1996, aged nine years, at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. At the time her death was wrongly linked to epilepsy;

Lucy Crawford who died in April 2000, aged 17 months, following treatment at the Erne Hospital, Enniskillen, for a stomach bug. Like Claire, Lucy’s death was not reported to the Coroner at the time of her death. Instead it was attributed to dehydration, rather than the fluid overload caused by the hospital;

Raychel Ferguson who died in June 2001, aged nine years following an appendectomy at Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry;

Conor Mitchell who died in April 2003, aged 15 years, who died following treatment at Craigavon Area Hospital. Like the other children, Conor suffered brain swelling, although his fluid regime appears to have caused hypernatraemia – excess sodium – rather than the low sodium noted in the four other cases.

Following the delays with Adam Strain’s case pushing it into April, it will be followed by oral evidence on Claire Robert’s case on the 11th June for a further four weeks. This change in the schedule will mean that Raychel Ferguson’s case will not be heard before the summer and will pick up again on the 3rd of September.

The oral evidence in Conor Mitchell’s case will be heard for two weeks from the 8th October with the oral evidence about the role of the Department of Health being heard for up to two weeks from the 29th October and closing submissions commencing on the 19th November.

In his statement Mr O’Hara defended the work conducted by the inquiry to date and said the delay was unavoidable:

“It is inevitable because Adam’s death occurred first and the evidence about him be heard first, there has been a focus on this case. That should not be misunderstood to mean that there has not been major progress in the other cases or that they are somehow less important.”