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Coroner to seek ruling over inquest for baby boy

By Victoria O'Hara

Northern Ireland's Senior Coroner is seeking guidance over whether he has the power to hold an inquest into the traumatic death of a baby boy.

John Leckey has said he could investigate the death of baby Liam Ireland, who died during delivery at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast in December 2013 - but only if he has "the jurisdiction or legal authority to do so".

Mr Leckey is now seeking clarity on whether he could pursue the inquest.

The law changed in November 2013 after a landmark case at the Court of Appeal spearheaded by Attorney General John Larkin on behalf of Siobhan Desmond, whose son Axel was stillborn.

The Court of Appeal judges ruled that all stillbirths can be referred to the Coroner's Court.

However, submissions have now been requested from the Department of Health and Mr Larkin to clarify the law and if an inquest should proceed in the baby Ireland case.

The hearing of those submissions has been set for mid-January.

Mr Leckey said: "This is an area of law where there are real difficulties of ascertaining duties of a coroner and a medical practitioner."

The move comes despite the publishing of the Department of Health's new guidance on the death certification process, carried out after the Court of Appeal decision.

It now clarifies which cases should be referred by medical practitioners. If the baby would not survive birth due to a defect and would not be capable of being born alive it should not be reported. But it also states if there are doubts about the "demise of the foetus" or if the mother has concerns, it should be reported to the Coroner. Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwifery said the guidelines gave clarity .

"Up until December 1 all stillborn cases were referred to the Coroner's Office. This gives clarity. Our hope is a decision can be made that those babies who are not going to be able to live due to a defect will not have to be reported. Those parents will be able to go ahead and organise a funeral for the baby. But we have to wait and see if it works in practice."

In Northern Ireland, around 200 babies are either stillborn or die in the first four weeks of life, according to the stillbirth and neo-natal charity Sands NI.

A spokesman for Sands said: "Rather than a coroner's inquest, Sands is calling for the introduction of a standardised hospital-based process for reviewing every baby's death."

Background

Louise Ireland and partner Patrick McCormack had been told their son, whom they named Liam, only had a 5% chance of survival due to trapped fluid in his stomach. The couple had repeatedly requested a caesarean section but were advised to have a normal delivery. Patrick witnessed his son's traumatising delivery, which left Louise unable to hold her son.

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