Warning over pregnant woman inquest
Published 10/09/2013 | 19:21
An inquest for an Indian woman who died from pregnancy complications must not be treated as a dry run for her family's High Court negligence action against health authorities, a coroner has said.
Dhara Kivlehan, 28, died in September 2010 in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital a week after giving birth to her first child in Sligo General Hospital.
Her widower Michael Kivlehan, from Dromohair, Co Leitrim, is taking legal action against the Republic of Ireland's Health Service Executive (HSE) over a series of alleged failings in her treatment in Sligo - claims the HSE is set to contest when the case is heard at Dublin High Court in December.
Mrs Kivlehan, who was originally from Gujarat in north-west India, was airlifted to Belfast after developing a severe form of pre-eclampsia in Sligo General - a condition her family allege was not diagnosed early enough despite warning signs.
While the family's legal team has praised the care given to Mrs Kivlehan in Belfast, an inquest is required in the jurisdiction where death occurred and today Northern Ireland's senior coroner John Leckey said he would hold the probe next month in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.
In a preliminary hearing at Belfast coroner's court, which was attended by Mr Kivlehan, his parents Michael and Susan and his and his late wife's two-year-old son Dior, Mr Leckey told lawyers the inquest had to be treated as a separate inquiry.
"The inquest should not be seen as a dry run for the civil proceedings," he said.
The coroner was reacting after a lawyer for the family expressed reservations on whether his and the HSE's respective expert witnesses could fulfil a request to meet up prior to the inquest to discuss differences in their findings - a practice Mr Leckey said would be useful ahead of the hearing.
Damien Tansey questioned whether such an encounter could occur ahead of the High Court case.
"Both sides will want to keep some powder dry for the civil action," he explained.
Mr Leckey asked whether the inquest should be deferred.
Declan Hegarty, representing the HSE, indicated he would be in favour of such a move.
"It is not as if the dates are so far removed," he said. "It is literally a matter of months."
But Mr Tansey urged the coroner to stick with the original date.
"This incident was in 2010. This is 2013 and the family have been living with the circumstances of the death since then.
"It's troubling beyond description, in particular for Mr Kivlehan. He has sought explanation in relation to the sudden and unexpected death of his wife."
The lawyer insisted he would not be treating the probe as a dry run for the civil case.
"The inquest has got a totally different function - it cannot vindicate, it cannot attribute blame," he said.
Mr Tansey added: " Mr Kivlehan and his family are most concerned that the inquest takes place."
Mr Leckey also raised concern on whether witnesses could be agreed and secured in the five weeks before the October 21 start date and gave both parties to the end of next week to send final lists to him.
"That will then be a month (until the start date) and it's tight, tight, tight to get things set up."
Noting that the family intended to call more expert witnesses than the HSE's one expert, Mr Hegarty said he would like to reserve the right to call further professional opinion if needed.
Mr Tansey objected to his counterpart's timing.
"It's a bit rich of Mr Hegarty to come in at this late stage three weeks before the scheduled start of the inquest to say he might want to get another expert in," he said.
But the HSE's lawyer insisted that he had to take such a stance to ensure a balanced hearing and insisted he intended no discourtesy to the court.
Mr Hegarty also highlighted potential difficulties in tracking down medics who might have since moved on from Sligo.
Ten doctors who then worked in Sligo and five from the Royal Victoria are provisionally listed to give evidence.
Mr Tansey had nothing but praise for the treatment given to Mrs Kivlehan in the four days she was in the Royal Victoria.
"Everything that was possible to do was done in Belfast," he said.
"No stone was left unturned. The Royal Victoria tried everything conceivable to save this lady and they failed."
Mr Leckey acknowledged the potential issues in securing witnesses and welcomed an assurance from Mr Hegarty that everyone the HSE had contacted in regard to the episode had been willing to co-operate.
But he expressed concern that he had no authority to issue summons compelling witnesses from the Republic of Ireland to attend inquests in Northern Ireland.
The coroner said the increasing levels of co-operation between health services on both sides of the border made the need for such mutual powers more acute.
He told the Sligo-based lawyers: "The problem is maybe something you would like to bring to the attention of your minister for justice Mr (Alan) Shatter and the attorney general."
Mr Hegarty noted the coroner's concern but stressed that he did not envisage a situation where current doctors involved in the case would not be willing to give evidence to the inquest.
Mr Leckey expressed hope that all outstanding issues could be resolved ahead of the October start date.
"We will proceed on the basis of optimism," he said.