Healthcare news

Claire Roberts: Relief for family as inquest to run in tandem with police probe

Alan and Jennifer Roberts, whose daughter Claire (9) died in hospital in 1996. Picture by Hugh Russell
Seanín Graham

THE parents of a nine-year-old girl whose hospital death was at the centre of a major inquiry have spoken of their "relief" that a fresh inquest is to proceed.

Alan and Jennifer Roberts said they had been preparing themselves for a potential two-year delay due to a police probe into the circumstances around their daughter Claire's death.

But coroner Joe McCrisken yesterday confirmed that an inquest would go ahead, adding that while "police have the power" to ask him to adjourn proceedings in the event of someone being charged, he didn't think that would happen.

An original inquest into Claire's death - which took place 12 years ago at her parents' request - incorrectly found she had died from a brain virus.

The east Belfast schoolgirl died in 1996 at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children from a condition known as hyponatraemia, which is linked to a shortage of sodium in the blood.

Her case formed part of a damning public inquiry which concluded that three other children's deaths at the hospital were also avoidable.

The 14-year inquiry found there was a "cover up" by some consultants in relation to the care of Claire - and that those involved were more intent on protecting their own reputations to "avoid scrutiny".

Speaking to The Irish News following a preliminary hearing at Belfast's Laganside courts yesterday, her parents welcomed the news about the inquest but expressed disappointment at the response of the health service eight months after the inquiry was published.

"We were concerned that we would face a long adjournment for a new inquest to take place while the police continue to investigate the findings of the O'Hara report," said Mr Roberts.

"Instead the coroner expressed his commitment to ensuring the inquest runs in parallel with the police inquiry as as well as an investigation by the General Medical Council.

"We are relieved and very pleased at the response of these bodies. The public inquiry was stalled for several years due to the police investigation.

"However, we are enormously frustrated and disappointed with the Department of Health and the Belfast health trust in how they have responded to the inquiry. We are now eight months down the line, with those doctors criticised in the report still working."

An emotional Mrs Roberts said it was "torture" preparing herself for each legal hearing.

"I was 36 years old when this started, I'm now 58 and it's just like reliving it each time... but we want justice for Claire," she said.

Mr Roberts confirmed they had met with the permanent secretary of the Department of Health, Richard Pengelly, on two occasions since Mr Justice O'Hara published his inquiry findings on January 31.

Senior officials from the Belfast health trust have met with the family once.

"The department want to talk about their recommendations but they do not want to speak about the report's findings - saying that it is a matter for the employer, the Belfast trust," Mr Roberts said.

"But when we met the trust, they informed us that any employment matters were for the GMC. They did inform us however that they currently do not have any grounds to suspend the doctors criticised in the report - despite the report's findings."

The new inquest was ordered by the Attorney General John Larkin in April.

A lawyer for the coroner told the court yesterday that the police investigation will likely take "a very lengthy period of time" because it will probe "all aspects of Mr Justice O'Hara's report".

The inquest will sit again later this month.

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