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Children's deaths inquiry allowed to access records of 25 other patients

The inquiry into the deaths of five children in hospital will be allowed to view the records of 25 patients, including eight who have not given their consent, a High Court judge has ruled.

Mr Justice Gillen found efforts by the Hyponatraemia Inquiry to uncover the truth about the death of nine-year-old Claire Roberts outweighed the right to privacy of the patients involved.

But he stressed that all personal details and any other information that could identify the patients must be erased from the records before they are considered by the inquiry.

The decision means the inquiry — which is currently looking at the case of Claire, who died at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in 1996 — should resume next Monday.

The Castlereagh schoolgirl was admitted to its Allen Ward on October 21, 1996 after vomiting and drowsiness. She died in hospital two days later on October 23.

The inquiry was adjourned last week after records of patients being treated in the hospital’s Allen and Cherry wards at the same time as Claire came to light.

At the time, inquiry chairman John O’Hara QC ordered the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust to seek permission from the patients involved to allow the inquiry to examine the notes.

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He told the inquiry he would take the matter to the High Court if the trust failed to gain permission by 5pm on October 1.

It is hoped the records will provide more information about the whereabouts and workload of Dr Heather Steen, the youngster’s consultant paediatrician when she was admitted to hospital, on October 21 and 22, 1996.

In court yesterday, it emerged the trust has established there were 25 other patients being treated in the two wards during the period of interest to the inquiry.

The trust’s counsel, Gerry McAlinden, told the court that all reasonable efforts had been made to gain permission from the patients in the time frame given.

He said it was not possible to get an up-to-date address for five of the patients, but the trust was “able to ascertain up-to-date addresses” for 20 of the patients.

Letters, which included details of the inquiry and a consent form, were “personally hand delivered” to these addresses, he said.

He added: “Of the 20 letters, 12 were returned with clear indication of consent, two further letters were returned but there is no clear indication of consent.”

He told the court one letter was returned with consent withheld, but he said no reason for the decision was provided.

A further five letters have not been returned, he said. Mr Justice Gillen said he was satisfied every reasonable step was taken to gain permission from the patients.

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