13 March 2018

On Wednesday 7 March, families, lawyers and representatives from the charity, INQUEST, were questioned by MPs of the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). The inquiry session was part of an ongoing inquiry on attitudes to enforcement of human rights, of which the findings will be presented to government. 

At the evidence session Deborah Coles, Executive Director of INQUEST, appeared alongside bereaved families who gave powerful testimonies about their experiences of the inquest process and the ‘inequality of arms’ they face in accessing legal support when state agencies are represented by teams of publicly funded legal experts. 

Among the participating families were Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother, Sara Ryan and stepfather, Richard Huggins. Connor had autism, a learning disability and epilepsy. An inquest jury concluded that Connor’s death was contributed to by neglect.  

At the inquest, Connor’s family battled to get answers from various bodies and individuals involved in Connor’s care. Each of these were granted funding for legal representation and among them were, the mental health trust, two doctors and two other members of healthcare.

Sara and Richard appeared alongside Joseph Phuong’s sister, Louise Rowland and her husband, Simon Rowland. Connor Sparrowhawk was 18 years old when he died on 4 July 2013. Joseph Phuong, a 32-year-old man, died in June 2015 following contact with the Metropolitan police and mental health services in West London.

Of the seven interested parties represented at the inquest, Joseph’s family was the only one required to apply for funding. Merry Varney, partner at Leigh Day Solicitors also gave evidence, speaking about the importance of legal advice and funding for families.

In hearing families’ testimonies, the Committee Chair, Harriet Harman MP said they offered a ‘searing exposition’ of the relentless struggles families face. These include an adversarial inquest experience, where families are pitted against a cabal of legal teams representing a plethora of state bodies.

The Rowland family recalled their inquest experience, in which they faced multiple legal teams representing, the Metropolitan Police, the London Ambulance Service, the London Borough of Richmond, Chelsea and Westminster, an NHS foundation trust, South West London and St George’s Mental Health Trust, and West London Mental Health Trust.

Simon Rowland highlighted the power imbalance between the ‘public bodies… which were all funded’ and the family, the ‘injured party which was expected to fund itself’.

Both families talked about the lack of information they received following the death of a family member, with Richard Huggins explaining, “You are given a leaflet in the family room in the morning when your child dies and it presents this process as benign, helpful and supportive… None of that was true.’

Deborah Coles, spoke of INQUEST's wide-ranging work on state related deaths. She said: “[Families] want to know the truth. They want to know whether there have been any failings and why those occurred. They want some accountability. Most importantly, they do not want it to happen again.”

This outcome can only be guaranteed if families have "a legitimate right to play an effective and meaningful part in the investigation into their loved one’s death", said Deborah Coles. 

Responding to these accounts, Harriet Harman MP said, "the state weights the system against you because those who are acting on behalf of the state have full-on legal representation from the word go in order to defend their position…” Meanwhile families “have nothing unless you happen to find people who are prepared to do it for free.” Ms Harman thanked INQUEST for our work with families over the years, "you’ve been a lifeline", she said.

INQUEST is calling for automatic non-means tested public funding for bereaved families at inquests following state-related deaths. This recommendation has been supported by the previous and current Chief Coroner and in two recent reviews by Dame Elish Angiolini and Bishop James Jones published in 2017. It has also been supported by the Bach Commission and the Harris review into Self Inflicted Deaths in Custody.

With momentum building, INQUEST will continue to push for families' right to automatic public funding at inquests, on a par with state bodies. Only this can ensure families' access to justice, and identify failings which can help save future lives. 

This hearing was part of the ongoing Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry, Human Rights: attitudes to enforcement.

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