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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 11:46 GMT
Organ removal condemned in court
Alder Hey inquiry
The Alder Hey scandal sparked an inquiry and legislation
Doctors have been condemned in the High Court for taking organs from the dead without seeking family consent.

Richard Lissack QC described the practice as morally, ethically and legally "objectionable".

Mr Lissack was opening a bid for compensation by more than 2,000 individual claimants whose relative's organs were taken without consent.

They say they have been offered just 1,000, compared with 5,000 given to families in the Alder Hey scandal.

Mr Lissack told the court it had been common practice to remove and retain organs for a variety of purposes.

In itself, this was not objectionable, he said. But it was if done without the knowledge - let alone the agreement - of the relatives.

This case is about righting a great wrong
Richard Lissack QC
Mr Lissack told the judge, Mr Justice Gage: "We submit that the practice was objectionable on three levels - morally, ethically and legally."

He said that although the families sought a fair level of compensation, no amount of money could adequate compensate them for the trauma they had been through.

"It ill-behoves journalists, politicians or lawyers to sit in judgment on the claimants who bring this action unless each can say `I understand what you have gone through' and mean it."

Mr Lissack said the case was not about demonising doctors, almost all of whom worked with the greater good of mankind in mind.

But he said: "This case is about righting a great wrong, we suggest, done to many thousands over many years by a medical profession which either ignored or failed to understand or understood but avoided the claim of law."

New laws

The government is currently introducing new laws to ban the retention of organs without consent in the wake of the scandal at Alder Hey Children's Hospital on Merseyside.

Last year the families of children whose organs were removed at the hospital received 5,000 each.

But the families who have launched the new action, who come from many different parts of the UK, say they were only offered 1,000 each from the NHS.

We need to be treated fairly
Ruth Webster

One of the parents, Ruth Webster, whose baby Ellen's organs were taken by Leeds General Infirmary, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the families had no other option than to go to court.

"We need to be treated fairly. Other families in other areas have been offered substantially more than we were offered and it just seems so unfair that they are saying their children were worth more than ours.

"It will not be easy for us. It will be incredibly painful. It is the last thing any of us want."

Grim discoveries

The Alder Hey scandal, which came to light in the 1990s, led to an audit across the health service which had prompted hundreds more families to come forward demanding compensation.

Parents discovered that in some cases, following the death of their children in hospital, the bodies had been returned for burial or cremation minus one or more internal organs.

Occasionally this resulted in a second, or even third, funeral as parents demanded the return of these parts, years after the death of their child.

Research will be regulated by the Act
Many institutions, particularly research units, were storing scores of tissue samples dating from decades earlier.

Under the Human Tissue Bill currently before Parliament, doctors removing organs without consent could face up to three years in prison.

But a spokesman for the NHS Litigation Authority said that such practices were widespread until quite recently.

"The claimants will have to convince the court that the entire medical profession has been acting illegally for the last 40 years," he said.

Health Secretary John Reid has said every case could not be treated in the same way as the circumstances were different.

The hearing is expected to last for around two weeks.

The BBC's Glenda Cooper
"The families are saying this case is all about respect"

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Alder Hey - the time table
30 Jan 01  |  Health

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