You have the likes of the police force represented out of the tax payers purse, then you have Gemma who is in this position through no fault of her own but is not eligible for funding, it's disgraceful

Tracey McCourt told ITV News Tyne Tees

Failures in the legal aid processes were starkly exposed at the inquest into the death of Stephen Berry. His family were represented, not by lawyers, but by another bereaved family after being unable to get through the protracted and painful application process for legal aid funding. Stephen’s daughter Gemma and Tracey McCourt, sister in law of Leonard McCourt who had also represented her family at Leonards inquest, connected online.

“I knew it would open some old wounds for me, but I also knew I couldn’t let Gemma do it on her own.” 

With no legal qualifications, Tracey took leave from work to support Stephen’s family through the inquest and was recognised by the coroner as the family representative. She and the family were supported by INQUEST Head of Casework, Anita Sharma.

Like the experiences of many other families, Gemma and Tracey faced combative legal teams representing state bodies, instructed to defend state practices and narrow the lines of enquiry, rather than find out what went wrong and why.

“People say the inquest process is ‘non-adversarial’. Well Gemma and I were up against three teams of state lawyers trying to obstruct and manipulate the process at every step of the way.”

The inquest concluded that Stephen died from the effects of alcohol withdrawal after being held in Northumbria police custody. The jury found symptoms of Stephen’s physical ill health should have been treated as a medical emergency and that had medical care been provided then his death may have been prevented.

Shocking evidence on the behaviour of police officers was also heard at the inquest. Detention staff at the police station dismissed Stephen’s ill health and were heard calling him "barking”, “crackers” & a “lunatic”. The IOPC have announced that gross misconduct proceedings will be brought against two custody sergeants who were responsible for his welfare.

For Tracey, the process of representing another bereaved family was inevitably going to be retraumatising, but having been through the experience herself she knew the importance of having a voice in the family's corner. As the urgent need for families to have immediate access to legal representation has never been so clear, the calls for automatic non means tested public funding grow stronger.

Learn more about the campaign and how to support it: 

Legal Aid for Inquests

Banner image credit: ITV News

In the news

ITV News: Legal aid failures exposed by Stephen Berry death in custody case, says charity INQUEST

ITV News: Daughter of many who died in police custody 'disgusted' at his treatment

INQUEST is campaigning for automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.

The inequality of arms between state bodies and bereaved families is an unacceptable curtailing of justice, undermining the preventative potential of inquests, to interrogate the facts and ensure harmful practices are brought to light.
INQUEST’s Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests campaign is calling for:

  • Automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.
  • Funding equivalent to that allowed for state bodies/public authorities and corporate bodies represented.

Inquests following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet families face multiple state lawyers, paid for at public expense, who frequently put defence of their interests above the search for the truth.
The Ministry of Justice published the final report of their review of legal aid for inquests on 7 February 2019. Despite long term, widespread support they rejected calls for fair legal aid funding.
A 38 degrees petition has since received 95,000 signatures, demonstrating clear and widespread public support around this issue.
The call for legal aid for inquests following state related deaths has been backed by numerous independent reports and public bodies, dating back as far as the 1999 Macpherson report. See the timeline of official support from 1999-2019, the briefing on legal aid for inquests and campaign page for more information.