Legal aid hope for mum over inquest into son’s 1994 death

editorial image

The mother of a Co Down schoolboy who died within days of receiving a combined measles and rubella vaccine has been boosted in her High Court battle over the scope of a second inquest.

Anne Coulter was granted leave to seek a judicial review on an issue over legal aid funding for next of kin at the planned new hearing into the death of her son Christopher in 1994.

Putting on hold another part of the challenge to the coroner’s decision not to run a more enhanced, Article 2 inquest, a judge also expressed “profound concern” at wider delays surrounding the case.

Mr Justice McCloskey said: “This has been hanging over the family for 24 years, and that is a frankly highly disturbing figure.”

Christopher Coulter, from Hillsborough, was aged 15 when he died, 10 days after receiving the combined measles and rubella (MR) vaccine.

In 1995 the original inquest found he had died from asphyxiation due to a severe epileptic fit.

But with no history of epilepsy in the family, his parents continued to believe the vaccine played a part.

In 2012 Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, John Larkin QC, ordered a fresh inquest into the teenager’s death, describing the case as being of “enormous public importance”.

Mrs Coulter was challenging the coroner’s decision that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which places a duty on the state to safeguard life and take steps to investigate following a death, is not engaged in the new proceedings.

Deciding to stay that element of her challenge, Mr Justice McCloskey stressed the coroner had not made an inflexible ruling and could revisit the Article 2 issue at a later point.

A second part of the challenge centres on the provision of legal aid for lawyers to represent the Coulter family during the inquest.

It was contended that the coroner had wrongly failed to take into account guidance from the lord chancellor on that issue of exceptional funding for such cases.

“There are very strong indications that the coroner did not do so, and the court does not hesitate to grant leave to apply for judicial review against that aspect of the coroner’s decision,” the judge said.

He pointed put how the inquest will involve issues of medical complexity and “an unmistakable public interest dimension”.

Coroners themselves are experienced lawyers who now have counsel to aid and guide them in cases, Mr Justice McCloskey noted.

He asked: “Where does that leave someone such as Mrs Coulter who may find herself in this inquest forum on her own, without any form of legal representation whatsoever?

“That reflection it seems to me is a matter of obvious importance.”

The case was adjourned until later this month.

Outside court Mrs Coulter’s lawyer, Nicholas Quinn of O’Muirigh Solicitors, said: “The decision to grant leave in the proceedings, and the particular remarks of the presiding judge, provide further encouragement to my client in her long standing pursuit of an inquest into the death of her son.

“I also welcome, in particular, the judge’s strong observations on the medical complexities of such an inquest and the enormous public importance in the role of the measles vaccination of Mrs Coulter’s son being fully explored in an inquest.”