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Coroner invites parents of Claire Roberts to give evidence about their daughter after 'avoidable' hospital death

Alan and Jennifer Roberts are expected to give evidence at the final day of a fresh inquest into the death of their little girl, Claire, in 1996
Seanín Graham

A CORONER has asked a couple who sat through three days of graphic autopsy evidence about their little girl if they want to take the stand - to remind the court they are talking about "a person".

Joe McCrisken has invited Alan and Jennifer Roberts to describe what their only daughter, Claire, was like as a second inquest enters its final stage.

The nine-year-old east Belfast girl died in 1996 at the Royal Victoria Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children in what a major inquiry concluded was an "avoidable" death.

Catastrophic care failings led to a "cover up" by some consultants, inquiry chair Sir John O'Hara QC found, as part of his damning report into the hyponatraemia-related deaths of five children.

An original inquest into Claire's death - which took place 13 years ago at her parents' request - incorrectly found she had died from a brain virus.

Sitting on the third day of the fresh inquest, which was ordered by the Attorney General, Mr McCrisken asked the couple if they would consider giving evidence at today's final hearing - even though they weren't listed to do so.

He stressed there was "no pressure" on them to speak and that there would be "no format" to it, requesting that they consider it overnight.

Mr McCrisken said he knew "just a little" about Claire as a child.

Addressing the couple directly, he said: "We have been so focussed on pathological evidence, I think it would be a good opportunity to remind people we're discussing a person here.

"You might want to tell me and everyone else who's listening about Claire".

Prior to his request at Laganside Coroner's Court, expert evidence was given by a pathologist about the results of the post-mortem carried out in 1996.

Dr Waney Squier, who said she had "looked at many thousands of brains" as a consultant neuropathologist, disputed the original autopsy diagnosis which found Claire had encephalitis - which is a swelling of the brain.

Claire Roberts (9) died in 1996 at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast and is one of the five child deaths between 1995 and 2003 investigated by the Hyponatraemia Inquiry Picture Mal McCann.

She said the evidence was "not sufficient" to make a "definitive diagnosis".

"In my speciality looking down a microscope... I could not persuade myself there was enough there to make an (encephalitis) diagnosis," Dr Squier said.

The expert, who is based at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, was the second independent pathologist to appear at the inquest and disagree with the 1996 autopsy findings.

On Tuesday, Professor Brian Harding also questioned the post-mortem diagnosis.

"I found no evidence of encephalitis provided in Dr (Brian) Herron's original autoposy report," he said.

The court heard that Dr Herron had said there was evidence of a "very mild" form of the brain condition.

But Professor Harding said he "took issue" with this.

"It's either present or it isn't... for me this was fairly cut and dried. The facts do not stack up to encephalitis."

Dr Herron also took the stand on Tuesday and insisted he stood over his autopsy findings of "very mild" encephalitis.

Mr McCrisken confirmed he would deliver his findings tomorrow.

It is expected that Alan and Jennifer Roberts will give joint evidence about their child.

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