In an often bluntly critical judgment which expresses concern as to the administrative competence of the IVF sector and the regulators oversight, the England and Wales High Court last week considered the courts power to rectify record completion and retention errors. Those errors called into question the parental status under law of a number of men whose partners had achieved pregnancy through assisted reproduction techniques.

In the matter of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 [2015] EWHC 2602 (Fam) opens with a number of overview remarks, reproduced as follow, with the bold text highlighted for emphasis::

[1] This judgment relates to a number of cases where much joy but also, sadly, much misery has been caused by the medical brilliance, unhappily allied with the administrative incompetence, of various fertility clinics. The cases I have before me are, there is every reason to fear, only the small tip of a much larger problem.

[3] The question of who, in law, is or are the parent(s) of a child born as a result of treatment carried out under this legislation – the issue which confronts me here – is dealt with in Part 2, sections 33-47, of the 2008 Act. It is, as a moment’s reflection will make obvious, a question of the most fundamental gravity and importance. What, after all, to any child, to any parent, never mind to future generations and indeed to society at large, can be more important, emotionally, psychologically, socially and legally, than the answer to the question: Who is my parent? Is this my child?

[6] Following Cobb J’s judgment, the HFEA required all 109 licensed clinics to carry out an audit of their records. The alarming outcome was the discovery that no fewer than 51 clinics (46%) had discovered “anomalies” in their records: WP or PP forms absent from the records; WP or PP forms being completed or dated after the treatment had begun; incorrectly completed WP or PP forms (for example, forms not signed, not fully completed, completed by the wrong person or with missing pages); and absence of evidence of any offer of counselling. At the time of the hearing, I did not know how many cases there might be in all, how many families are affected and how many children there are whose parentage may be in issue – so far as I was aware the HFEA had never disclosed the full numbers – but it was clear (see below) that some clinics reported anomalies in more than one case. Since the hearing, the HFEA in a letter dated 1 September 2015 has indicated that there are a further 75 cases.

[8] The picture thus revealed, and I am referring not just to Barts, is alarming and shocking. This is, for very good reason, a medical sector which is subject to detailed statutory regulation and the oversight of a statutory regulator – the HFEA. The lamentable shortcomings in one clinic identified by Cobb J, which now have to be considered in the light of the deeply troubling picture revealed by the HFEA audit and by the facts of the cases before me, are, or should be, matters of great public concern. 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 HFEA’s regulation then of the extent of its regulatory powers. That the incompetence to which I refer is, as I have already indicated, 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.

Ultimately the court found that it had power to rectify the various administrative errors: [63].