When a couple, or a couple not in a civil partnership undergo IVF treatment involving sperm donation, consent forms have to be signed by both the woman undergoing the treatment and her partner. This must be done prior to treatment, as they ensure legal parentage after the child’s birth.
However, in what Sir James Munby described as an “alarming and shocking ” situation of “administrative incompetence”, the HFEA’s check showed that many consent forms were incorrectly completed or dated after treatment had taken place; some forms were missing from clinics’ records altogether.
The anomalies occurred in 51 clinics, which amounts to 46% of the total number of licensed clinics – there being 109 in total. As a consequence, couples who conceived through these clinics have had their legal parentage called into question.
Sir James Munby was faced with eight separate claims – involving both heterosexual and same-sex couples – in which he granted a series of declarations of parentage pursuant to Section 55A of the Family Law Act 1986.
In his judgment Sir James Munby said:
The picture revealed is one of what I do not shrink from describing as widespread incompetence across the sector on a scale which must raise questions as to the adequacy if not of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s regulation then of the extent of its regulatory powers.
That the incompetence to which I refer is…administrative rather than medical is only slight consolation, given the profound implications of the parenthood which in far too many cases has been thrown into doubt.
James Turner QC, counsel for two of the applicants in the case, told BBC Radio 4 that Sir James Munby was clearly:
…very annoyed on behalf of the public and particularly annoyed on behalf of the parents who’d been treated, as he clearly thought, rather shabbily by the authorities. Because what had happened was that the legislation had been put in place, had these dramatic, important effects on people’s lives and the staff who were dealing with this at the clinic either hadn’t been properly trained or weren’t being sufficiently supervised and checked to ensure that what was necessary under the legislation was actually being properly done.
In a statement, the HFEA acknowledged that it had been ‘very stressful’ for the parents involved, and went on to assure the public that they are taking steps to redress the problems:
We are working with the clinics involved to make sure affected patients are contacted and offered the support and advice that they need. We have also changed our approach on inspection to make sure that consent processes in clinics are tightened up and that staff are properly trained.
We will review the action we have already taken, alongside the Judge’s recommendations, to minimise the risk of this happening again. All fertility patients have a right to expect that matters as important as consent to parenthood are handled professionally by their clinic.