PARENTS who mounted legal claims against the city council over the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal are set to receive compensation pay-outs of up to £4000 each.
Negotiations between council chiefs and law firm Thompsons, acting on behalf of 129 parents, have produced a proposed settlement which could cost the council up to £600,000.
Altogether there were around 250 cases where parents of babies who were stillborn or died soon after birth were told there would be no ashes left following cremation, when in fact the infants’ remains were buried secretly in the grounds of the council-run Mortonhall Crematorium.
Parents not included in the Thompsons action can still pursue a claim if they wish, but many have made clear they have no interest in seeking financial compensation.
Under the proposed deal, all parents covered by the settlement would receive at least £1000, but those who can produce evidence they suffered severe stress as a result of the scandal – requiring medical treatment or time off work – would qualify for £4000.
The payments will be made “ex-gratia” and without admission of legal liability.
Dorothy Maitland, former operations director of bereavement charity Sands Lothian, who uncovered the scandal, which was first revealed in the Evening News, said the issue for parents had never been about money.
But she said: “I’ve got to thank Thompsons and the council for getting to this stage, because there will be closure.”
Willie Reid, chairman of the Mortonhall Ashes Action Committee, whose daughter Donna was cremated at Mortonhall in 1988, also stressed that no amount of cash would make up for the scandal.
He said: “Money is not going to change what happened to Donna or how her ashes were dealt with.
“But it will bring a closure to the legal side between parents and Edinburgh council.
“Some parents won’t be happy with it, others will. That’s for individual parents to make a decision on. And if other people are minded to pursue a claim now, that’s a matter for them to contact solicitors with.”
Council chief executive Dame Sue Bruce said the settlement would also cover payment of legal expenses.
She said: “We have been working with Thompsons and in private discussion we have reached a position where Thompsons feel there is a settlement they can recommend to their clients.
“We recognise that not all parents want to seek a settlement. Large numbers of parents are involved in this, all dealing with it in different ways.
“For those who have gone through Thompsons, out of respect to them we feel it is important to have gone through that dialogue, reached a settled position as soon as we possibly can and bring the matter to a close for these parents.”
Councillors will be asked to approve the deal next week. A report by Dame Sue acknowledges it will create a cost which has not been budgeted for, but adds: “The council’s head of finance has advised it will be possible to identify funding.”
Patrick McGuire from Thompsons Solicitors said the two years since the scandal broke had been extremely distressing for the families involved.
He said: “In addition to the grief they face over the loss of their children, the families also have to bear the deep upset caused by the practices at the crematorium. Despite this they have shown remarkable courage and resolve to make the Scottish public aware about what had gone on.
“As a group, the Mortonhall parents have displayed great solidarity and compassion to each other and it is largely through their efforts that we now have wider investigations into events at crematoria throughout Scotland.
“The Mortonhall families, through their tenacity and decency, have brought us to where we are today. In doing so they have ensured that in future no other families will have to suffer distress due to unacceptable practices at our crematoria.”
Ms Maitland, who lost one of her twin daughters 26 years ago, said she was pleased the compensation claims had not had to go to court where lawyers could have ended up arguing over the details of individual cases. She said: “I’m very happy that Thompsons and the council have agreed all the cases will receive some kind of compensation. I would have hated it to have gone to a situation where they were saying ‘That baby was more viable’ or ‘That baby was stillborn’.
“My daughter lived nine days, but as a group of parents every single one of these babies mattered and the council has recognised that.”
Ms Maitland said the compensation settlement was the council’s way of telling parents: “We did you wrong.”
She added: “I’m hoping a lot of parents will accept this and find closure.”
She said she thought there was a good chance some parents who had not initially pursued legal action would now come forward for compensation.
She said: “Some people were so angry at the beginning and others just didn’t know what they wanted to do.
“People who have decided to claim have decided that for them that would help them.
“Some people initially didn’t come forward, maybe because they were quite frightened about what it was going to entail. It’s baring your soul again.
“It’s been a long haul and there has been a lot of emotion. I hope this will give them a bit of peace of mind to move on.”
Scandal revealed by news
The Evening News revealed in December 2012 how parents had been told for decades that no ashes were recovered from their children’s cremations, while in fact staff had been burying them in unmarked ground at Mortonhall.
The scandal sparked two major inquiries – one conducted by Dame Elish Angiolini, the other by Lord Bonomy – which led to new legislation on the cremation of still-born babies and infants who die just days after birth.
Changes include an independent inspector of crematoria, improved staff training and more robust record keeping.
City council chief executive Dame Sue Bruce said: “There has been deep loss but there will be an immense legacy which will ensure that in this country and specifically in this city you will not see this type of thing happen again.”
Dorothy Maitland, the mother who first uncovered the scandal and who has just retired from bereavement charity Sands, said: “My baby’s legacy will be that the law has been changed and this should never be repeated.”
Four designs on offer for memorial garden
DESIGN options have been unveiled for a memorial garden at Mortonhall, dedicated to the babies whose ashes were buried or scattered in the grounds without their parents’ knowledge.
The affected families, who have been closely involved in drawing up ideas for a fitting tribute, will be asked to vote on their preferred design.
And a second memorial also proposed at another location in the city is still to be identified.
Four options are being canvassed for Mortonhall, including one (main picture) where the main focal point is a simple, serpentine-shaped shelter and bench, complemented by a teardrop shaped water garden to provide parents with a private and peaceful place for personal contemplation.
Another design (below) involves a circular garden, created by a stone wall with a linear beech hedge leading to a circular water garden full of aquatic plants. Other options include a “Mandela” symbol of a circle with other circles contained within it, creating a place of reflection, peace and contemplation and a fan shape echoing the existing contours in the landscape of Mortonhall.
Dorothy Maitland, who first uncovered the ashes scandal, said she liked the design proposals.
She said: “Parents have played a big part in this and at the end of the day it will be their decision and I think that’s quite important as part of the grieving.
“Initially I swore I would never go back to Mortonhall again because it just filled me with anger and hurt, but as the months have gone on, I have changed my mind quite a bit.
“I’m not saying I’ll be going a lot, but it’s the kind of place I would probably go at some point.
“It’s just a quiet place for reflection, tasteful – I think that’s what people will find comfort from.”
Willie Reid, from the Mortonhall Ashes Action Group, said he had had a similar change of view.
And he also welcomed plans for another memorial elsewhere in the city.
He said: “There are a number of parents who will never want to visit Mortonhall, so it will be somewhere for them to go – and for everyone, even members of the public, to go along and show respect.”