Families tragically let down by mental health services too often find themselves left to struggle unrepresented at inquest.
Mental health services are chronically overstretched and underfunded countrywide, however the demand for these services is higher than ever. This combination frequently means that at risk patients experience delays in accessing treatment, which can have lethal consequences for the most vulnerable.
We regularly represent families bereaved when their loved one has committed suicide after suffering poor mental health. Insufficient risk assessment by care providers and difficulty in accessing appropriate treatment pathways are often identified as key factors in the events leading up to death.
After a suicide there should be an inquest, where the coroner will look at the questions:
- Who the deceased was
- When the deceased died
- Where the deceased died
- How the deceased died
The purpose of an inquest is not to attribute blame to anyone; it is simply to establish the facts surrounding that death. It can be an important part of the process for families coming to terms with what has happened, providing them with a clear factual picture. Evidence will be submitted to the coroner by those who were involved with the deceased in the events leading up to their death.
An inquest is sometimes the precursor to a bereaved family bringing a negligence claim against those who have provided care to their loved ones, but as explained above the inquest process itself is not a forum for establishing accountability.
However, as examined in this recent BBC news article, NHS trusts and care providers are frequently and misguidedly treating inquests as a first line defence against potential negligence claims and employ legal representation for inquests paid for by public funds.
In contrast, public funding is usually not available to bereaved families who may struggle to find alternative means to pay for legal representation. Radio 4 was told by the Legal Aid Agency that 600 requests for legal aid for inquests were made in the last year and almost half were refused. This shows that even in the minority of cases where a client may be eligible to request legal aid, the prospects of securing that funding are far from certain. As a result, many families are left to critically examine medical records and evidence themselves and to ask the appropriate questions in person at the inquest hearing.
This power imbalance is worrying for a number of reasons. We are expecting individuals likely to be most upset about the events in question to scrutinise evidence and appear in person at hearings, placing a huge burden on the shoulders of those who are already suffering and which is not likely to lead to the most effective assessment of the facts. Families would be forgiven for feeling that the interests of the professionals are better represented than their own.
An inquest should provide answers and reassurance that any lessons for the prevention of future deaths will be put into practice. The current system whereby medical professionals and NHS trusts are able to “lawyer up” at inquests whilst the deceased family is left unrepresented will result in more rather than less negligence claims.
As the BBC article concludes “…the system seems to be weighted against the bereaved families who have the strongest incentive to ensure that the lessons are learned”. Until there is a change, increasing numbers will be compelled to bring a negligence claim when they perceive that the inquest process has failed them.
If you are concerned about the care which you or a loved one has received or your require legal representation at an inquest, please contact a member of our clinical negligence team on 01865 781000 for a free, confidential discussion.
The Freeths national clinical negligence team is headed by:
Carolyn Lowe, Partner (South including Oxford/Milton Keynes/London) - 01865 781019 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Karen Reynolds, Partner (Derby/Stoke on Trent/Birmingham) - 0845 274 6830 / email@example.com
Jane Williams, Partner (Leicester/Nottingham) - 0845 272 5724 / firstname.lastname@example.org
The government says that lawyers shouldn't be needed for an inquest because it's not intended to be adversarial. In other words, an inquest shouldn't involve the kind of arguments that might require a lawyer's assistance. It's meant to be an entirely neutral examination of events, in which all parties are on the same side - seeking the same truth.