Posted by Ali Cloak, Senior Associate
Why is the Government considering giving coroners new powers to investigate stillbirth?
In welcome news, the government has announced a consultation on plans to bring in new investigative powers for coroners to investigate the cause of stillbirths, and to consider where lessons can be learnt to improve maternal and fetal care during pregnancy. Ali Cloak considers this announcement as well as what it may mean for bereaved parents and the wider public, should it become a reality.
Why is this important?
Surprisingly, Britain has one of the highest stillbirth rates in Western Europe. Whilst the rate is decreasing, NHS England maintains that 600 stillbirths a year could be prevented if maternity units followed best practice.
Currently, if a baby is stillborn, it falls outside of the coroner’s powers to investigate the death. It is hoped that an independent investigation into stillbirths will be able to highlight where lessons can be learned, and enable hospital trusts to take the action necessary to reduce pregnancy risks, whilst improving maternal care where possible.
If there is a stillbirth, then the hospital or NHS Trust in charge of the mother’s care will investigate as the law stands. Practice appears to vary across the country and there are inconsistencies with the nature and extent of the investigation carried out. In addition, a Department of Health body – the Healthcare Safety Investigative Branch – may choose to explore the circumstances around the pregnancy and birth, though this is more rare.
Parents who have sadly experienced a stillbirth often report that these investigative processes are not transparent, independent, or even consistent from case to case. The processes can leave parents with many unanswered questions about what has gone wrong, and feeling that what has happened has not been fully examined, meaning the same thing could happen to other families.
What is the Government proposing?
Ministers are currently suggesting that coroners would have the power to investigate all ‘full-term’ stillbirths, defined as those that take place after 37 weeks of pregnancy – a stillborn baby being defined in the UK as one which has been carried past the 24th week of pregnancy but which has sadly not shown any signs of life after being born. Medical practitioners or families could refer the birth to the coroner to request an investigation. Coroners would then be able to investigate the circumstances around the stillbirth and consider whether any lessons can be learned and prevent future occurrences.
It is thought that these powers would be in addition to any reports or investigations undertaken by the hospital or NHS bodies.
What would it mean?
The coronial system is already under strain so there would need to be additional funding in place to properly deal with the additional inquests which could arise as a result. However, with proper funding – and training – for coroners this would be a very welcome change for many.
The inquest process may well provide additional answers for the families who have experienced stillbirth, and offer some comfort to them in knowing that an independent investigation has been undertaken.
In addition, the findings would also be incredibly useful in identifying trends of care (both good and bad) across England and Wales, allowing for lessons to be learned and for care to be improved. It would also help to improve current understanding of the causes of stillbirths, and which could bring about positive change for all prospective parents.
How do I get involved?
The consultation wants to hear from bereaved parents, charities, support organisations and health professionals to get a full range of views on the issues and what the changes should look like.
You can access and respond to the consultations until 18 June 2019 by following this link. It is not necessary to answer all the questions so you can simply answer the ones that are most relevant to you or that you have experience of.
If you would like any more information about inquests please see our informative webpage here.
If you have suffered from a bereavement, you may find our list of resources of organisations that can support you helpful.
If you have any questions for our team about bereavement, please contact them today.
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