Coroners could be given powers to investigate stillbirths

Last week the government launched a consultation on proposals to give coroners the power to investigate all full-term stillbirths. The aim of the proposals is to make sure that each case is independently investigated, to help bereaved families get answers, and to help prevent future baby deaths.

More transparency is required

Currently, coroners can only hold inquests for babies, who have shown signs of life after being born. They cannot investigate cases with a healthy pregnancy where the baby was stillborn. Some parents have raised concerns about how investigations are carried out in stillbirth cases and have called for a more independent and transparent process.

Kate Mulley, Director of Research, Education and Policy, at Sands (Stillbirth & neonatal death charity) has said:

“At Sands bereaved parents often tell us how vitally important it is to understand why their baby died and that the best legacy for their baby is to ensure that lessons are learned to prevent future deaths”.

Under the new proposals, coroners would have powers to investigate all stillbirths occurring from 37 weeks of pregnancy. Coroners will not have to gain third party permission or consent in exercising this power and will consider whether any lessons can be learnt to prevent future stillbirths. It is proposed that coronial investigations will not replace current investigations undertaken by the hospital or NHS agencies.

Maternity care review at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust

Many by now will be aware of the close scrutiny and media attention given to the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust in relation to baby deaths, including stillbirths (see blog by Lanyon Bowdler’s Beth Harrison from last September). In November last year the BBC reported that more than 200 families had raised concerns about maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust. The review into maternity care at the hospital trust is being led by senior midwife, Donna Ockenden. It is understood that this review is likely to be completed at the end of the year. The new proposals to give coroners powers to investigate stillbirths may help families like those who are part of this review.

Lanyon Bowdler has acted for many bereaved families, who have suffered the tragic loss of their baby. Many families simply want answers, so that lessons can be learnt and no other family has to go through the terrible tragedy of losing a child.

The government’s consultation is inviting views from a wide range of people, including bereaved parents, as well as healthcare professionals and organisations that provide care and support to affected families.

NHS Long Term Plan

Health minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, has said:

“Rates of stillbirths in England are the lowest on record, but we’re committed to delivering on our ambition in the NHS Long Term Plan to accelerate action to halve this number by 2025”.

Justice Minister, Edward Argar, has said: "Although we have robust processes in place at the moment to investigate stillbirths, we think we can go further and we should go further”.

It is good to see that action is being taken, which will hopefully provide further opportunities for families to have their voices heard and their questions answered and to help improve maternity services across England and Wales. The consultation will run for 12 weeks, closing on 18 June 2019.