High Court challenge over stillbirth inquest decision

A judge in Northern Ireland has been asked to overturn a decision not to hold an inquest into a stillbirth.

Lawyers for the NI attorney general, John Larkin QC, challenged the denial of a hearing for baby Axel Desmond.

Mr Larkin directed Northern Ireland's senior coroner, John Leckey, to hold an inquest last year.

Mr Leckey decided he did not have legal authority to oversee a tribunal into the stillbirth at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry in October 2001.

The case centres on an interpretation of whether an actual death had occurred.

Inquests are currently not held into stillbirths anywhere in the UK.

Emergency

David Scoffield QC, appearing for the attorney general at the High Court, said the courts have never before made a ruling on this issue.

He told Mr Justice Treacy: "This is an issue which does fall to your lordship it seems for the first time to determine."

Axel Desmond was among more than 112 stillbirths recorded in Northern Ireland in 2001.

His mother Siobhan went into labour two weeks after her due date.

She had planned to give birth at home in Derry but following complications was taken to Altnagelvin Hospital where Axel was born by emergency caesarean section.

Staff tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.

Mr Scoffield argued that an inquest should be held for a stillborn child who was capable of being born alive. He contended that the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959 does not include any clear prohibition.

"We say in the absence of any express statutory conclusion what the coroner ought to have done in this case is proceed to hold the inquest," he said.

"It's absurd that there can be an inquest into the death of a child who dies one minute after delivery but not one minute before delivery.

"The court should strive to avoid such an anomalous result."

Distress

Rejecting claims that there had been no death or dead body, requirements for an inquest, Mr Scoffield said there had been evidence of life before birth.

"There was a foetal heartbeat in the womb," he told the court.

Ms Desmond's barrister, Fiona Doherty, said her client was no different to a mother whose child dies after birth.

"She has been bereaved, her grief is the same, her need for answers is the same, her need for closure is the same," Ms Doherty added.

Counsel for the senior coroner said he recognised Ms Desmond's distress, but had taken the view that the law does not allow him to hold an inquest.

Nicholas Hanna QC said that the legislation only covers death after a live birth.

"The deceased did not have independent life," he said. "That's the crucial point. Therefore there is no jurisdiction to hold an inquest.

"If the law is to be changed it should be dealt with by the legislature and not by the courts."

Following submissions, Mr Justice Treacy said he would take some time to consider his decision on the judicial review challenge.

"This is obviously a very important case and it raises extremely interesting issues," he said.

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