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Important breakthrough in the recognition and investigation of stillbirths

While the vast majority of pregnancies end in a happy and healthy baby, for others the outcome is not so positive.

As a clinical negligence solicitor I have dealt with several families whose experience of pregnancy and birth has ended in tragedy. For those in the awful position where a child passes away after birth there is the agony of an investigation and often an inquest where a coroner will establish how their child came about their death. This involves a hearing where the family and the coroner have the opportunity to question the treating doctors and determine whether the correct decisions were made regarding their treatment. Under the Coroners (Investigations) Regulation 2013 a coroner can impose a Section 28 ruling forcing the trust to ensure that steps have been made to prevent similar deaths occurring.

At the end of the inquest the coroner presents their findings and a formal death certificate is issued. Some families then choose to pursue a claim for compensation but many are satisfied simply knowing that the death has been investigated and promises made that it will not happen again.

The whole process of an inquest can be difficult for a family but it can also provide much needed resolution of concerns they have with the treatment they were given.

Under the current law an inquest is not available to those parents who suffer a stillbirth, which according to the BBC is as much as nine babies per day. For these families the hurt is the same, the grief is the same, they have bought clothes and made plans, but simply because their baby passed away in the womb their suffering is not seen as being on a par with parents who lose their baby after only minutes of life.

For stillbirth families there is no inquest and they are not entitled to a Bereavement Award, as their child is not seen as having “lived”. This places unnecessary anguish on families who are already going through the worst time. They often have to resort to the formal complaints process or involve solicitors to thoroughly investigate what happened to their child.

I was very pleased therefore this morning to read that coroners in England and Wales may be given new powers to investigate stillbirths from 37 weeks gestation. This will allow full through and independent investigation into the cause of stillbirths and identify any changes to care that need to be made. It will assist with gathering data to be used in prevention and hopefully through Regulation 28 Orders, ensure those trusts that are current failing women and babies change their policies and make pregnancy safer in the UK.

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