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Stillborn child inquest decision was right, rules High Court

Northern Ireland's senior coroner was right to refuse to hold an inquest into the death of a stillborn child, a High Court judge ruled today.

Mr Justice Treacy held that the relevant legislation does not give authority for an examination of the circumstances surrounding baby Axel Desmond.

He rejected a bid by Attorney General John Larkin QC to have coroner John Leckey compelled to oversee a tribunal.

In a case centring on interpretations of whether an actual death had occurred, Mr Larkin issued judicial review proceedings after Mr Leckey declined to comply with his direction to hold an inquest.

The coroner refused last year on the basis that it would be beyond his legal powers.

Axel Desmond was stillborn at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry in October 2001 - one of 112 such cases that year across Northern Ireland.

His mother Siobhan went into labour two weeks after her due date.

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She had planned to give birth at home in Derry but following complications was admitted to hospital where Axel was born by emergency caesarean section.

Staff tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him.

Lawyers for the Attorney General argued that an inquest should be held for a stillborn child who was capable of being born alive.

It was contended that the Coroners Act (Northern Ireland) 1959 does not include any clear prohibition.

But counsel for the coroner claimed the legislation only covers death after a live birth.

The judge identified a series of important and weighty policy issues at the core of the challenge, such as: what is a person? is it possible to die before being born? and is there a legal difference between 'life' inside and outside the womb?

Despite expressing sympathy for Ms Desmond, he said such philosophically fundamental questions should not be address by a first instance court in this case.

"The ramifications of such a change would reverberate widely and have far reaching consequences in areas such as abortion, reproductive rights, infertility treatment, cloning, stem cell research, artificial intelligence and areas of science that have probably not even been conceived yet," he added.

Mr Justice Treacy said the Coroners Act would have clearly and unambiguously stated if it intended to confer such potentially wide-ranging jurisdiction for stillbirths.

Dismissing the challenge, he ruled: "That it did not do so in primary legislation, as all are agreed, points unmistakably in my view to the conclusion that the Coroner was correct in refusing to comply with the direction of the Attorney General on the basis that such an inquest would be outside the coronial jurisdiction.

"For this reason I uphold the coroner's interpretation of the Act, that is that coroners in Northern Ireland do not have jurisdiction to perform an inquest into a stillborn child."

An order for legal costs of the case was made against the Attorney General.

Outside the court Ms Desmond predicted the ruling would not mark the end of the road.

She said: "I think this is the first step in a more important set of judgments.

"I have been prepared for this, I have come 12 years so far, and my understanding is that it will go to appeal."

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