This is a HFEA case, along the same lines as the one decided by the President discussed here:-
I.e that because a clinic involved in artificial insemination (IVF) failed to use proper consent forms and keep proper records, the parents ended up in Court to resolve who had parental responsibility. You may recall from that case, that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority had carried out an audit and found that about HALF of the clinics who do this work were using the wrong forms and losing records. There was always going to be more litigation about this cock-up.
This individual case, however, did not (as the President’s 8 cases did) involve parents who were all on the same page about their intentions and who should have parental responsibility but parents who were already litigating issues about the children. So this was an added complication to already difficult proceedings.
In this particular case, Pauffley J was rightly very critical of the clinic involved, Herts and Essex Fertility Centre.
- In the course of my separate Children Act judgment delivered on 30 November, I said I would be able to find unequivocally that F is entitled to the declaration he seeks. He is the father of C. This judgment explains my reasons for that preliminary indication. It also comments upon the actions and omissions of the Herts and Essex Fertility Centre (HEFC) for identical reasons to those described by the President in his judgment. It is both alarming and shocking that, once more, a court is confronted with an instance of such striking ineptitude from an organisation which is subject to statutory regulation and monitored by a statutory regulator namely the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
We’ll come onto it in detail later, but because the Clinic refused to comply with Court orders, the Court had to make the orders again, but with a penal notice attached. It is pretty unusual for a Court to need to do that against an organisation (as opposed to say a lay person)
F v M and Others 2015
When the parties contacted the clinic to ask for the records, and even when Court orders were sent, the Clinic was unresponsive – my reading is that the requests were processed by someone who went into “someone is trying to sue us for something, give them nothing” mode. (which is not even the way it actually works with a personal injury or negligence claim, where disclosure is part of a pre-action protocol). As it turned out, the Clinic’s resistance to assist and comply with Court orders not only made the litigation more protracted and costly, but they ended up having to offer to pay the costs anyway.
Also, seeing the lawyers involved in the case in the headnote, boy did this clinic mess with the wrong people…
- The second noteworthy matter surrounds HEFC’s litigation conduct which has been wholly extraordinary. Notwithstanding both parents’ written authorisations and ready agreement to the disclosure of material from HEFC, the process has been fraught and, at best, piecemeal. There would seem to have been a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose for which disclosure of records was sought.
- In early May, only 20 or so pages of medical records were made available. Had there been full and proper disclosure at that stage, the eventual shape of the litigation could have been very different. Again and again, letters were written by M’s and F’s Solicitors. In late May, HEFC was strongly recommended to attend the first court hearing. In response, the Clinic’s finance manager stated that it was not accepted that “HFEC had failed to comply with the necessary procedures;” and the suggestion of attending the hearing was declined.
- On 29 May an order was made joining HEFC as a party and directing it to file any evidence upon which it intended to rely. Two months later, on 28 July, in the absence of any engagement by the Clinic, F’s Solicitors wrote a lengthy and informative letter, drawing attention to the 7 cases being heard by the President, seeking agreement to fund the father’s legal costs, reiterating the disclosure requests and giving information about the next court hearing.
- On 10 August, the Clinic’s finance manager emailed F’s Solicitors saying, “to confirm, we will not intervene nor will we be attending the hearing.”
- On 14 August, I made an order directing HEFC to disclose all and any medical notes relating to M and F’s treatment as well as all correspondence (including emails and other communications) with M and F. I also directed the Clinic to file and serve detailed statements from the Person Responsible and the Medical Director. The HEFC was directed to attend the next hearing on 22 October.
- On 4 September two statements were provided, one from the Person Responsible, the other from the Medical Director. The covering email from the finance manager indicated that the Clinic would not be in attendance at the next hearing as “this is a Family Law matter.”
- I cannot begin to understand how such a misapprehension arose as to the proper role for the Clinic in these proceedings particularly given the unambiguous correspondence from the parties’ Solicitors supported as it was by the text of several court orders.
- On 20 October (about a month after F’s Solicitors had drawn the Clinic’s attention to the President’s HFEA 2008 judgment), an email was sent to the Clinic’s finance manager reminding her that HEFC was required to attend the hearing on 22 October. The response was that the Clinic would not be attending.
- It was therefore necessary, on 22 October, to make an order with a penal notice attached so as to ensure the Clinic’s compliance with directions. I also listed a hearing to determine the Clinic’s liability for the parties’ reasonable costs. Once again, an order was made that the Clinic should attend the next hearing.
- On 4 November, Russell-Cooke LLP was instructed by the Clinic. Seemingly that was the point at which the Clinic appreciated the need for assistance from lawyers. As Mr Powell explained during his final submissions, the Clinic’s first point of contact (when faced with requests for information) had been the insurers. Apparently, though this is difficult to understand given the explicit nature of incoming correspondence, the Clinic had not appreciated the gravity of the situation.
- There was then inter-solicitor correspondence resulting in further disclosure on 10 November. For the first time, critically important laboratory records were revealed showing affirmative ticks by the WP and PP boxes on forms. Two further and important tranches of documents were disclosed on 19 and 20 November just a very few days before the final hearing listed on 24 November.
- The detail of the Clinic’s litigation conduct is both important and profoundly disappointing set against the framework of the dispute between these parents. The levels of conflict have remained at the highest level throughout. M and F are bitter, resentful and mistrustful of each other. M’s position, in all probability, became ever more entrenched as the result of the Clinic’s lack of engagement and failure to disclose early.
- The Clinic’s bewildering behaviour has undoubtedly added to a situation of enormous tension in circumstances which were already intensely fraught. It would have assisted greatly if the Clinic had responded to requests for information in a timely and cooperative fashion. Seldom is it necessary to make orders backed with a penal notice against organisations whose aims include a desire to serve the public and to a high standard. It was altogether necessary here.
- It should also be observed that even by the very end of the hearing, there had been no attempt on the part of the Clinic to engage directly with either M or F. Beyond what had been said formally within the proceedings there has been no correspondence and no apology on the part of anyone at HEFC. That is quite obviously a profoundly shocking state of affairs. Neither parent has had any offer of help, support or explanation for the situation in which they have been entangled. They have been left completely on their own with no ability to understand the reasons for what went so badly wrong.
- On behalf of the Clinic, Mr Powell accepts that no words would do justice to the emotional distress caused to M, F and their family members. He did not seek to defend the Clinic’s actions; and accepts the criticisms levelled. The Medical Director’s unreserved apology, said Mr Powell, although late is nonetheless candid. The Medical Director accepts that the Clinic’s litigation conduct was wholly unsatisfactory and has prolonged the parents’ distress. He intends to write directly to them apologising on behalf of HEFC and would welcome the opportunity to meet each parent to provide an apology in person and answer their questions.
- Mr Powell indicates that lessons have been learned and contrition on behalf of the Clinic is genuine. It is a good indication of the HEFC’s remorse that it has undertaken to pay the parties’ costs as they relate to the declaration of parentage proceedings.
On the fundamental issue, whether the proper consents had been recorded about the treatment and who was to be considered as legal parents for any child produced by the treatment, the Judge had this to say:-
- Without descending into more of the detail, I am entirely satisfied of the following – (1) that M and F did sign WP and PP forms prior to the commencement of treatment; (2) that the forms as well as the internal consent forms were signed at the treatment information appointment (as the checklist confirms); (3) that the WP and PP forms have subsequently been mislaid or lost; (4) that M and F received appropriate counselling prior to treatment in relation to the consequences of using donor sperm; (5) that notwithstanding the lost forms the clinic acted within the terms of its licence; and accordingly (6) F is C’s father.
- Turning from the specifics relating to parentage, there are a number of associated matters which require comment. The first is as to the bemusing and seemingly unsatisfactory response of HEFC to the Legal Parenthood Audit initiated at the request of the HFEA on 10 February 2014 following the judgment of Cobb J AB v CD and the Z Fertility Clinic  EWHC 1418 (Fam).
- On 1 September 2014, the HFEA wrote to all clinics to inform them of the outcome of the Audit – namely that “nearly half of all clinics that have responded reported anomalies with their legal parenthood consent.” The letter expressly informed clinics – “if you have any doubt about the validity of legal parenthood you should seek your own legal advice. You should also inform the affected patients and their partners.”
- The underlying message was clear. Clinics should have been supporting and assisting parents. They have an obligation to be open and transparent – most particularly with those whose parenthood was potentially disturbed by administrative incompetence. The parents were (and are) the individuals in most need of advice and assistance; they are entitled to and should have been treated with respect and proper concern. In this instance, M and F were left completely on their own without assistance of any kind from HEFC.
- The medical files for these parents should have been (but were not) included in the Legal Parenthood Audit which was to be completed over a period of three months. The omission has been reported to the HFEA. It is perplexing to say the least that this couple’s files were missed when account is taken of the chronology of the mother’s telephone calls (from late March / early April 2015) seeking information about the consent forms as well as initial ‘phone calls followed then by a formal letter from M’s then Solicitors requiring information.
- At the instigation of the Chief Inspector of the HFEA an investigation is about to begin to discover the reasons for the error. There will be a ‘Root Cause Analysis’ undertaken by an independent consultancy for UK regulated organisations so as to identify what went wrong. The investigation will also seek to discover whether the HEFC complied with the HFEA’s request to sample or review files. Importantly, it will examine how the WP and PP forms were mislaid or lost. It is said on behalf of HEFC that the investigation will be thorough and comprehensive.
- The findings of the independent consultancy will be reported to the HFEA so that decisions may be made about what action should be taken. The medical director of HEFC assures the court that he is committed to “getting to the bottom of what happened, to taking all remedial action and to working with the HFEA to ensure that the circumstances which gave rise to this case can never happen again.”
- The HEFC has taken other steps including the installation of ‘Meditex,’ a new Fertility Database which will require the scanning in of Forms WP and PP enabling immediate retention and availability for inspection. The database is comprehensive, internationally recognised and used by other leading clinics across Europe.
It really does seem likely that there will be many more of these cases. I’d suggest that hospitals stop putting Court orders from family Courts in the “Go Screw Yourselves”* section of the in-trays.
(*That wasn’t actually intended to be an artificial insemination joke when I first wrote it, but hey, I’m not one to snub serendipity when it comes a’knocking)