Before HM Senior Coroner Terence Carney
Gateshead and South Tyneside coroners court, 35 Station Rd, Hebburn NE31 1LA
Monday 16 – 20 December 2019

Stephen Berry was 43 years old when he died, after becoming unresponsive in a cell at Washington police station. He was pronounced dead in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Gateshead in the early hours of (12.39am) 30 March 2013. His family will be represented at the inquest 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 had a long history of mental ill health and alcohol dependency. On 28 March 2013, he was transported to Washington police station by Northumbria police where he arrived shortly after 5pm. Stephen brought his daily medication and the instructions on when to take them with him. He was put in a cell monitored by CCTV and placed on observations which required him to be roused or spoken to every half an hour.

The following morning on 29 March 2013, Stephen reported to custody staff that he was hallucinating and requested to see a doctor. By the afternoon, he was behaving in an increasingly distressed and disoriented manner. When the doctor arrived later that evening, he instructed for an ambulance to be called.

The family hope the inquest will explore:

  • the quality and quantity of the physical checks and observations of Stephen by custody staff;
  • the management of Stephen’s prescribed medication for his mental ill health and alcohol dependency;
  • the level and sufficiency of communication between detention staff and the force doctor.

Legal aid for inquests

After applying to the Legal Aid Agency, Stephen Berry’s mother was awarded funding for legal representation at the inquest. When she sadly passed away in March 2017, the role of next of kin was passed on to Stephen’s daughter. At a time when she was grieving for both her father and grandmother. At her most vulnerable, she faced an intrusive, long and complex funding application process.

Stephen’s daughter was unable to complete this process at the time and, as a result, has been left without possibility of funded legal representation. Tracey McCourt is the sister in law of Leonard McCourt who died aged 44 after being pepper sprayed before collapsing in the back of a police van 2010. Tracey and Stephen’s daughter connected online, and Tracey is now supporting Stephen’s family through the inquest and is recognised by the coroner as the family representative. She and the family are being supported by INQUEST Head of Casework, Anita Sharma.

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.

State bodies and representatives have unlimited access to public funding for the best legal teams and experts. This inequality of arms is an unacceptable curtailing of justice, undermining the preventative potential of inquests, to interrogate the facts and ensure harmful practices are brought to light.



For further information, interview requests and to note your interest, please contact INQUEST Communications Team: 020 7263 1111 or [email protected]; [email protected]

The family are represented by Tracey McCourt and working with Anita Sharma, INQUEST Head of Casework.

Other relevant cases:

Mark Needham, 52, died in July 2015 after having five seizures in Northumbria police custody.

The inquest heard that Mark was prone to seizures when withdrawing from alcohol. The jury concluded that errors by sergeants and a police nurse contributed to his death. The coroner raised concerns about the risk of custody staff becoming ‘desensitised’ to drunk people and missing deteriorating health conditions as a result.

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.