Govt Consults on New Stillbirth Powers for Coroners 

Peter Russell

March 27, 2019

Coroners in England and Wales could be given extra powers to investigate stillbirths, the Government said.

Ministers announced a consultation on allowing coroners to investigate all full-term stillbirths occurring from 37 weeks pregnancy.

At present, coroners can only hold inquests for babies who have shown signs of life after being born. They cannot investigate where the pregnancy appeared healthy but the baby was stillborn. In these circumstances the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch must investigate the death.

Helping to Prevent Future Stillbirths

The Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Justice said the new powers would help provide parents with information on what went wrong and why, and ensure mistakes were identified that could prevent future deaths.

The proposals would ensure that both bereaved parents and medical staff were involved at all stages.

The changes were prompted by concerns by some parents affected by stillbirth of inconsistencies in the current system who were in favour of a more transparent and independent process.

The Government said its proposal built on its 2017 national maternity safety strategy that supported its ambition to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths, and brain injuries occurring during or soon after birth by 2025. The then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, promised to consider whether and how coroners could carry out investigations into babies who were stillborn at 37 weeks or over.

Consultation Period

Commenting on the consultation, Edward Argar, the justice minister, said: "A stillbirth is a tragedy which has a profound effect upon bereaved families. We must ensure that every case is thoroughly and independently investigated.

"These proposals would ensure that bereaved parents have their voices heard in the investigation, and allow lessons to be learnt which would help to prevent future stillbirths."

The consultation will run for 12 weeks, closing on 18th June 2019. Bereaved parents, the organisations that support them, healthcare professionals, and those working for coroners services are among those invited to contribute their views.

Jackie Doyle-Price, the minister for women's and children's health, said: "We want to do everything we can to make pregnancy safer, by continually learning to improve the care on offer so fewer people have to experience the terrible tragedy of losing a child and those who do get the answers and support they deserve.

"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.

"This is a complex issue and it's important we get it right by listening carefully to those who are affected by these issues, so I urge everybody to have their say on this consultation. By sharing your experiences you can ensure any decision we make puts women, loved ones and their babies first."

Kate Mulley, director of research education and policy at stillbirths charity Sands 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.

"We believe their views must be taken into account when determining any changes in the role of coroners. This consultation by the Ministry of Justice raises important questions and we would encourage anyone affected to make their views known."

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