An investigation into Northern Ireland’s chief scientific adviser, who allegedly gave “misleading” evidence to an inquest into the death of a nine-year-old girl more than a decade ago, will continue after the High Court dismissed his challenge to the decision.
The General Medical Council (GMC) decided to investigate Professor Ian Young over claims he also did not tell the family of Claire Roberts about “failings” in her treatment at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Belfast.
Claire died from hyponatraemia, which is linked to a shortage of sodium in the blood, on October 23 1996, shortly after she was admitted to hospital following several episodes of vomiting.
Prof Young was asked to review the case in 2004 and provide an assessment on whether hyponatraemia contributed to Claire’s death.
In a January 2018 report, inquiry chairman Mr Justice O’Hara also said Prof Young had “shifted from his initial independent role … to one of protecting the hospital and its doctors”.
A new inquest, which was ordered following the inquiry, concluded in June 2019 that Claire’s death “was caused by the treatment that she received in hospital”.
Prof Young referred himself to the GMC shortly after the inquiry’s report was published and the regulator initially decided not to waive its usual five-year time limit for fitness to practise proceedings.
But, in January 2020, the GMC decided it was “in the public interest” for the allegations against Prof Young to proceed to an investigation and that the original decision not to investigate was “materially flawed”.
At a High Court hearing in January, Prof Young argued that the original decision was “lawful and rational” and the reversal of that decision was “inconsistent and unreasonable”.
In a ruling on Tuesday, Mr Justice Holgate dismissed Prof Young’s challenge, finding that the GMC’s original decision was “wholly unsustainable”.
The judge said the original decision-maker failed “to appreciate key elements of the inquiry’s findings going both to the seriousness of the allegations and the public interest issues involved”.
He found that the allegations against Prof Young were “significantly more serious” than the original decision-maker had appreciated.
Mr Justice Holgate ruled that the GMC was right to conclude that there were “material flaws” in the original decision.
He also said: “The criticism of the use of the word ‘cover-up’ has no legal merit at all.”
The judge said the GMC explained in its second decision that the allegations against Prof Young were “plainly very serious and involve, at their highest, ‘an allegation of deliberately misleading the family of a deceased child and a coroner in relation to cause of death'”.
Mr Justice Holgate also said: “It is not the court’s role in these proceedings to express any conclusions about the merits of (the allegations). This judgment should not be treated as if it does.”
In a statement after the ruling, Professor Ian Young’s legal representative said he was “disappointed” with the decision.
The statement said: “Professor Young continues to acknowledge the ongoing suffering of Mr and Mrs Roberts and their family in relation to Claire’s death in 1996 and subsequent events.
“He has apologised previously if any of his actions have inadvertently contributed to their distress, and would like to do so again.”
His legal representative added: “Throughout these events, Professor Young believes that he has acted with integrity, to the best of his ability, to give clear and honest opinions which reflected his knowledge and understanding of the evidence at the time.
“In particular, he denies completely any suggestion that he sought to mislead the coroner or Claire’s parents in any way.
“Indeed, he believes that the record is clear that on every possible occasion he has sought and supported further independent external scrutiny of Claire’s care.”
A GMC spokeswoman said: “We are pleased the court has decided that our decision to investigate in this case was lawful and will now continue.
“This is a difficult time for all concerned and our thoughts remain with those families who lost children to hyponatraemia in Northern Ireland.
“As in any case, we will look at all the evidence before making a decision.”