Belfast Telegraph

Justice at last as Belfast Trust admits responsibility for daughter's death 17 years on

By Anna Maguire

The father of a nine-year-old girl who died in hospital 17 years ago has said justice has finally been done, after a health trust admitted responsibility for her death.

"We knew someday this would happen," said Alan Roberts, whose daughter Claire died at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in 1996.

Yesterday, just a week before the 17th anniversary of Claire's death, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust admitted liability for her death for the first time.

The trust also admitted liability for the first time for the death of four-year-old Adam Strain, who died at the same hospital a year previously, on November 28, 1995.

The deaths of the two children and one other, nine-year-old Raychel Ferguson, are the focus of an ongoing public inquiry.

It is also investigating the events following the death of Fermanagh toddler Lucy Crawford, aged 17 months, and issues arising from the treatment of Conor Mitchell, who died at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in May 2003.

Fluid management during the children's care and the issue of hyponatraemia – which occurs when there is a low amount of sodium (salt) in the blood stream – are central to the inquiry.

Yesterday, lawyers informed the inquiry of a letter sent this week to Conor Mitchell's family by the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, acknowledging Department of Health guidelines issued in 2002 were not followed by doctors caring for the teenager when he died the following year. The guidelines focused on the prevention of hyponatraemia in children.

In a highly dramatic development, a lawyer for the Belfast Trust said the health trust has written to Claire Roberts' family, with "a full and frank admission of liability on behalf of the Belfast Trust in relation to the death of Claire Roberts".

Claire Roberts' father, Alan, said last night: "On Wednesday, it is Claire's 17th anniversary, but we were determined to get justice and that's what we have got."

"Obviously in the statement by Belfast Trust they admit liability and that doctors responsible for Claire's clinical care failed her, and also failed us as parents.

"But we still feel that there are many questions that have yet to be answered. We will be pushing for another inquest in to her death."

The Belfast Health Trust lawyer also said it will be writing to the family of Adam Strain. "That response will contain a full admission of liability and an apology and an expression of sympathy," he told the inquiry.

Yesterday's developments follow an admission of liability in August by the Western Health and Social Care Trust for the death of Londonderry schoolgirl Raychel Ferguson (9).

She died a day after she underwent an appendix operation at Altnagelvin Hospital in June 2001.

Claire Roberts died two days after she was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital on October 21, 1996 for observation, with what her parents thought was a tummy bug. The Castlereagh schoolgirl had been suffering from vomiting and lethargy. Her death was not reported to the coroner.

An inquest in 2006 found the cause of Claire's death to be cerebral oedema (excess fluid on the brain) and hyponatraemia.

The admission in Claire's case comes weeks after lawyers acting for her parents started legal action against the Belfast Trust in relation to Claire's death.

Adam Strain died after a kidney transplant at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in 1995. The Belfast Health Trust had previously settled the case with Adam's family, but the settlement contained a confidentiality clause.

WHAT NEXT?

Yesterday's admissions of liability were a watershed moment in the inquiry, but it is not over. Inquiry chairman, John O'Hara QC, said in the case of Conor Mitchell (15), "I think we need a little bit of time to consider... how much evidence and what evidence will have to be heard". Conor's doctors were not aware of crucial Department of Health guidelines about preventing hyponatraemia in children that had been issued in the year before his death. Mr O'Hara said the number of witnesses needing to be called would, however, be reduced, with fewer questions asked.

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