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The families of Scots who died after contracting hepatitis C from infected blood transfusions have launched a legal challenge for a public inquiry into the deaths.

Thompsons Scotland raised the action on behalf of relatives of three victims after Scottish ministers refused their request for an inquiry. The action is hoped to force ministers to order a public inquiry into how infected blood, some taken from prisoners in American jails, was used to treat patients in the NHS.

Documents released earlier this year showed that directors of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service were aware as early as 1981 that the blood they were buying from the US was contaminated with at least two forms of the hepatitis virus.

Since 1980, about 4800 people in the UK have been infected with hepatitis C, which can cause liver cancer, while under the care of the NHS. About 500 were haemophiliacs in Scotland.

On behalf of Representations to Lord Glennie yesterday on behalf of Jean Black, from Stirling, and Mary McArthur and Roseleen Kennedy, both from Glasgow, whose relatives died after receiving contaminated blood.

Aidan O'Neill QC, asked the judge on behalf of the relatives to take the unique step in Scots law of making protective costs orders in respect of the three women - in other words limiting their liability in the event their action fails.

The three women Jean Black, from Stirling, and Mary McArthur and Roseleen Kennedy, both from Glasgow all had relatives who died after receiving contaminated blood.

The protective costs order would prevent the Scottish Executive from trying to recoup court expenses from the family members if ministers won the legal challenge.

Mr O'Neill told the court: "They are not seeking money or compensation. This is about airing a matter that needs to be aired in public. They are seeking to air the whole question of the manner in which blood products and blood transfusions were being dealt with by NHS Scotland."

The women are seeking a judicial review of the Scottish ministers' failure to hold an inquiry into the deaths of their family members.

Mr O'Neill said: "The state has in certain circumstances a duty to order a full public inquiry . . . into all aspects which related to the deaths. Are the issues of general public importance? There is no doubt that is the case."

Mrs Black's husband, David, who was a church minister, died in 2003 of liver cancer caused by hepatitis C, which he received from a blood transfusion as he was a haemophiliac.

Ms Kennedy's mother, Eileen O'Hara, also died in 2003. She was 72 and received blood transfusions in 1985 and 1991 in connection with heart surgery. She was later diagnosed as having hepatitis C.

Mrs McArthur's husband, Alex, died in 2000 at the age of 69. He received blood transfusions before and after a kidney transplant in 1984, but was later told he had contracted hepatitis C. At the time of his death, he was found to have liver disease.

One of the issues the public inquiry would examine is why in England in the early 1980s heat treatment was introduced in an attempt to decontaminate blood products 18 months before similar safety measures were taken in Scotland.

Lord Glennie deferred a decision on the costs order.

Blood bought from US prisons was regularly used by the NHS for transfusions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Since 1980, 4800 people who received contaminated blood have contracted hepatitis C in the UK.

About 1200 people contracted HIV as a result of infected blood used for transfusions in the UK.

The US stopped taking blood from prisoners in 1983 amid concerns about the spread of HIV, but it continued to be used in Scotland.

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