Controversial Maternity Unit Closure Faces Legal Challenge

Expert Public Lawyers Representing Pregnant Woman Could Fight Decision in Court


Expert lawyers representing a pregnant woman could mount a legal challenge to the controversial closure of Berwick’s Maternity Unit, claiming there was a lack of consultation with the public and a failure to provide suitable alternative care.

Specialist public law experts at Irwin Mitchell have written to Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to warn them that they may challenge the decision in the courts if bosses do not reconsider their decision and reopen the unit.

The Unit’s closure on 1 August this year left pregnant women in the town facing a round trip of over 80 miles and also meant the NHS Trust cannot cater for home births in the area

The move by lawyers comes after ‘extreme concerns’ were raised with them by pregnant women and women in Berwick who plan to have children in future, who fear the town could be cut off in winter and are worried over the long journeys to the nearest alternative hospitals, Wansbeck, more than 50 miles south, and Borders, 40 miles east in the Scottish town of Galashiels.

Specialist public lawyers from Irwin Mitchell could now take legal action on behalf of two local women affected by the changes, 25-year-old Tara Smith, who is three months pregnant, and Chanel Ryan, aged 18 and who gave birth to her first child last year, she is not currently pregnant but wants the service to remain open to support others in future.

Both women would like to give birth in their home town and have joined the Save Berwick Maternity Unit campaign group set up in response to the Trust’s decision to close the unit, which includes other mums-to-be from the town furious at the loss of their local unit and which says it has anecdotal evidence of problems with transfers to alternative hospitals since the closure of the unit.

The group believes the midwives and the Berwick Maternity Unit are extremely well regarded and both Tara and Chanel have used the unit for ante and post natal care previously with ‘first class care’.

Alex Peebles, an expert public lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing the women, said: “Our clients are not aware of any consultation with the public or those most closely affected by the decision to close the Unit despite there being clear obligations to consult set out in the National Health Service Act 2006.

“Tara is very concerned about hers and her unborn baby’s safety and Chanel feels very strongly that she would want to give birth to any future children in Berwick. They feel that the alternative maternity healthcare services now available to them are now inadequate to meet both their current and future needs.”

Alex Peebles added: “Berwick is a small town and can be extremely isolated.  Main roads such as the A1 and train lines around Berwick have been hit by flooding in recent years which has lead to the town being cut off at times during the winter. Traffic speeds on the nearby A1 can also be slow because of farm vehicles and overtaking slow moving tractors can be very difficult at times.

“The alternative hospitals are around 40 and 50 miles away leaving families with a long round trip for their pregnancies.  The closure of the Maternity Unit is made all the more worrying by the Trust’s decision to withdraw midwife cover to support mothers who wish to have a home birth and the Trust has also withdrawn post natal services at Berwick Maternity Unit without providing adequate replacement services.” 

As well as breaching duties set out in the NHS Act 2006, lawyers for the two women will also argue that the NHS Trust may be in breach of the Equality Act 2010 which outlines that public bodies need to have “due regard” to the welfare of any disabled people who may need the maternity services when making decisions. 

Chanel Ryan said: “Giving birth is a very scary thought and experience for anyone but now we have the added stress of knowing that we face a long journey to another hospital whatever the circumstances, which is especially worrying if there are any emergencies.

“There is also now a very limited post natal care service available for new mothers so it’s going to be hard for people to get help with things like breast feeding and bathing.

“I wasn’t asked what I thought of the closure and it seems no-one who would be affected was asked either. It’s appalling. Everyone I know who is pregnant just wants to give birth in Berwick so they feel looked after.”

In its letter, Irwin Mitchell has demanded that Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust re-opens the Berwick Maternity Unit for new birth deliveries and reinstates the previous package of ante and post natal healthcare services

They have also asked for confirmation that the trust will carry out a full consultation in compliance with the NHS Act 2006 and undertake a full equality assessment before making any further decisions to close the maternity unit.