20 November 2012

A flawed inquiry?

There is to be an inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar. It is to be headed by an external expert, a professor from one of the London teaching hospitals.

Three of the seven members of the panel are employed at the hospital where Savita died, though we are told that they were not involved in her management. They are a consultant in anaesthesia, a consultant in infectious diseases and the professor of obstetrics and gynaecology.

These three are to advise the panel on local procedures and policies. They are to be ‘excused’ from the questioning of those directly involved in Savita’s management.

Now, while it’s sensible for the panel to be informed on local policies, it does mean that these three people will also be evaluating their own policies and the policies and actions of their colleagues; they are to be both ‘witnesses’ and ‘judges’. You might well think that this gives rise to a significant conflict of interests. You could argue that such a duality will allow the inquiry to be much quicker than otherwise would be possible.

This is not to say that the three won’t discharge their duties to the best of their abilities. But it must make it hard for them to be impartial, to be disinterested; they will have to work with their colleagues in the future.

And that surely is the weakness of this inquiry; no matter what the report eventually shows and recommends, it will be hard to escape any charge of bias. And therefore there will be a call for a truly impartial inquiry.

Unsurprisingly, Savita’s widower, Praveen Halappanavar, is calling for a full public inquiry, with witnesses questioned and cross-questioned under oath.

Edit: the Irish Times reports (20 November, afternoon) that local staff have been removed from the inquiry.

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