The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) have echoed the concerns of INQUEST and bereaved families in the report on their inquiry Enforcing human rights, published Thursday 19 July. The report concludes that for human rights to be enforceable, they must be accessible. It explores gaps in access to justice, including those faced by families bereaved by state related deaths.

The Committee recommends that; “families must be given non-means tested funding for legal representation at inquests where the state has separate representation for one or more interested persons.” This follows written evidence by INQUEST and oral evidence from bereaved families and INQUEST Director Deborah Coles.

This recommendation supports those in a range of recent reports, including the annual reports of two Chief Coroners, the Angiolini review on deaths in police custody, and the Bishop’s review on the experiences of Hillsborough families. The disparity between bereaved families, who often struggle to access legal aid, compared with state agencies involved in deaths, who are automatically represented at public expense, is a longstanding concern of INQUEST. This report is a welcome addition to the widespread calls for change.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “We welcome this report and the committee’s acknowledgement of the inherent unfairness in the coronial system. This is yet another significant report recommending non-means-tested funding for legal representation of families bereaved by state related deaths.  

Bereaved families have a vested interest in uncovering systemic failings, in the hope that future deaths can be prevented. There is significant public interest in ensuring they can access justice. As momentum builds around this issue, we look forward to urgent action from the government.”

 

Dr Sara Ryan, who gave evidence to the committee on her family’s experience following the death of her son Connor Sparrowhawk said: “We're pleased the Committee clearly listened to the evidence presented and recognise the current inequalities riven throughout the system. It's now the turn of the government to act on the recommendations and release families from the misery of fighting for legal representation at inquests.”

Louise and Simon Rowland, who gave evidence on their family’s experience following the death of Louise’s brother Joseph Phuong said: "It is encouraging to see the committee recognise the issues that a bereaved family faces during an inquest, and we cannot agree more with their conclusion that the process is adversarial rather than inquisitorial in nature.

Families are often left in the dark, trying to sort out numerous matters associated with a loved one dying whilst under the protection of the state, while trying to make sense of what has happened both emotionally and legally. Having access to funded legal representation is paramount for justice, and we welcome the committee bringing this to the attention of parliament"

ENDS

NOTES TO EDITORS

For further information, please contact Lucy McKay on 020 7263 1111 or here.

Read the full report on the inquiry webpage from Thursday. 

See INQUEST’s written evidence to the inquiry and oral evidence of INQUEST and families for more information on these issues. This blog also summarises the issues raised by families at the evidence session.

The Committee heard from the following two families, supported by INQUEST:

  • Connor Sparrowhawk’s mother, Sara Ryan and stepfather, Richard Huggins. Connor Sparrowhawk was 18 years old when he died on 4 July 2013. Connor had autism, a learning disability and epilepsy. In October 2015 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. 

  • Joseph Phuong’s sister, Louise Rowland and her husband, Simon Rowland. Joseph Phuong, a 32 year old man, died on 5 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.

    On Tuesday (17 July) the inquest into the death of Jeroen Ensink concluded, finding serious failures by state agencies in protecting the public from the man who unlawfully killed Jeroen. Nadja Ensink-Teich, his wife, was forced to crowdfund for legal representation at this inquest despite numerous state agencies being represented at public expense. This is one of a number of examples of the inequality of arms faced by bereaved families.

 

Exceptional Case Funding

Since the submission of INQUEST’s evidence to the committee, the Ministry of Justice updated their Exceptional Case Funding guidelines so that the scheme now applies to the individual applicant rather than the wider family. INQUEST believes this is a modest step forward and we hope that it will make the process faster and less intrusive. However, it is a long way from a non-means test that INQUEST is calling for - a call endorsed by the both the Angiolini and Bishop’s reviews and once again by JCHR.