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Inquest into death of baby at vicarage halted as coroner refers case to DPP

Published 05/10/2016

Police at the vicarage in Freckleton, Lancashire, in 2014
Police at the vicarage in Freckleton, Lancashire, in 2014

An inquest into the death of a baby boy at a vicarage has been halted by a coroner, who referred the case to the director of public prosecutions.

HM coroner for Blackpool and Fylde, Alan Wilson, made the intervention - which he described as a "rare occurrence" - following evidence given by a medic.

He was told that Jonathan Percival was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, but would have survived if resuscitation had been provided.

Jonathan's mother, Ruth Percival, 30, gave birth in a downstairs bathroom of the vicarage in Freckleton, Lancashire, while on the toilet, and her father, James, 66, the then vicar of Holy Trinity CE Church, came in to help.

The Rev Percival went on to tell the police the child appeared "sallow and lifeless" and he thought was "obviously deceased" but Blackpool Coroner's Court was told the baby could have survived up to 15 minutes after delivery.

The court heard Jonathan was born between 3.30pm and 4pm on November 25, 2014, but was not seen by a medical professional until about 5.35pm when Mr Percival let paramedics into the family home at Sunnyside Close.

During that period the baby was left alone in the house wrapped in a towel on a sofa as the pair visited their local GP, the inquest was told.

Giving evidence, consultant neonatologist Dr Ruth Gottstein said statistical data showed that when babies were born with the cord around their neck there was an 80% survival rate with resuscitation.

Miss Percival and her father were due to give evidence on Wednesday as part of the scheduled three-day hearing but Mr Wilson told them it would not be "appropriate" to do so after he listened to Dr Gottstein's evidence.

He explained: "In court today she stated clearly that if resuscitation attempts had been made she could see no reason why this child would not have survived.

"In my opinion this evidence strengthens the previous existing suspicion as to whether a criminal offence had been committed.

"I take the view that having listened to Dr Gottstein it is incumbent upon me to adjourn this inquest and refer the matter to the director of public prosecutions (DPP), with a view for the DPP to consider if a criminal prosecution ought to follow and that includes considering the offence of causing or allowing the death of a child."

He added: "This is a rare occurrence and I can assure Ruth Percival and James Percival that it is one I do not take lightly, but given the evidence, this is a matter that ought to be referred to the DPP and I am going to adjourn the inquest without hearing any further evidence."

Both Mr Percival and his daughter were arrested and questioned on suspicion of murder and conspiracy to conceal the birth of a child.

In January this year Lancashire Police said they faced no further action in relation to those allegations but had since been arrested and questioned on suspicion of child neglect.

In April police said that following consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, both father and daughter had been told they would face no charges.

Miss Percival and her father were sat apart during the hearing at Blackpool Town Hall and neither were legally represented.

Miss Percival covered her face with her hooded coat pulled down as she entered the building.

The father of her child, a Brian Hanlon, had been invited to attend the proceedings as an interested party but had not responded to correspondence from the coroner.

The inquest was told Miss Percival was living with her father and mother, Susan, 66, at the time of the birth, which was a full-term pregnancy.

She was said to have known she was pregnant and had wanted an abortion but was told by the Marie Stopes clinic in Manchester that she was "too far on".

In medical notes it was recorded she had then "buried her head in the sand and forgot about it".

She was sent home from work on November 25 2014 after "feeling unwell" with stomach ache and back pain, the court heard.

Mr Percival went on to tell police that his daughter had gone into the downstairs bathroom at about 3.30pm and remained there for approximately 30 minutes.

He then heard "moaning and groaning", he said, and opened the door to "blood everywhere", with his daughter holding a baby.

He stated that he saw the cord around the neck, the baby was "obviously deceased" and he described him as "sallow and lifeless".

After wrapping the baby in a clean towel, he placed him on a settee in the lounge as his daughter went upstairs to clean herself up, the inquest heard.

He then proceeded to clean the downstairs bathroom and toilet.

Both left the house for a pre-arranged GP appointment at 4pm as the baby was left on the settee, the court was told.

Mr Percival waited in the car park of the GP's surgery while his daughter sat in the waiting room.

After Miss Percival gave an account of the incident, an ambulance was called to the surgery for Miss Percival and her father was told he should go home to meet paramedics.

But, the inquest was told, Mr Percival did not immediately go home and instead went to collect his wife from a local garden centre and drove her back to the surgery.

After dropping his wife off, he finally arrived at his home at 5.36pm where the waiting paramedics were let in.

It was reported that Mr Percival stated to paramedics that his daughter had earlier taken the baby towards an outside dustbin.

In responding to evidence from Home Office pathologist Dr Alison Armour that a leaf was found on the child's inner left thigh, Mr Percival agreed the baby had been taken outside at some point but was "never" placed in the bin.

When Miss Percival was taken to Blackpool Victoria Hospital, she was said to have told medics: "My dad said the baby died because the cord was around the neck.

"I want nothing to do with the baby. I want the nurse to dispose of it."

She went on to tell the police that the birth was a "sudden event" as she sat on the toilet and the baby fell into the water.

The baby was floating on his side, she said, and was pale in colour, with the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck.

Miss Percival told detectives she thought the baby was asleep or deceased.

No attempt was made to ring 999, the inquest was told.

She said she lifted the baby up, wrapped him in some clothing and put him in a plastic bag but that her father came in and said she should not do that and took the child off her.

Mr Percival also intervened during the inquest to say that the child was not placed in a plastic bag.

Dr Armour told the court there was no evidence the child had drowned and there was no evidence to support a view that the cord was placed around the neck deliberately in an effort to strangle the boy.

But she said she found it difficult to assess the latter possibility as a midwife had removed the cord.

She also stated there was no evidence of a plastic bag being placed over the child's head.

Dr Armour explained that a scratch found on the back of the child's head suggested he could have survived for between five to 15 minutes after birth but the injury did not contribute to the death.

She said the cause of death was "unascertained".

Dr Gottstein told the court: "If resuscitation had been initiated, I think the baby would have survived.

"Mouth-to-mouth would have done a good job."

The two doctors, together with consultant paediatric pathologist Dr Jo McPartland, agreed that Jonathan was alive when he was born.

Miss Percival was briefly sworn in to give evidence as she confirmed her name, her then address and the name and birth date of her son before the coroner explained his reasons for adjourning the inquest.

He said he would inform the DPP and await the decision of its review.

Mr Percival left the hearing without comment.

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