Mental health trusts and other state organisation every year spend millions of pounds for experienced lawyers to represent them at inquests. The relatives of those who have died, however, are repeatedly faced with the prospect of having to represent themselves because they do not have the financial means to pay for legal representation.

In many cases, bereaved families cannot get legal aid, and if they do, then they have no option but to go through rigorous means-testing which is stressful and extremely intrusive. In many cases, families find the process of trying to secure legal aid so stressful and become so disheartened that they give up. Even when they have put themselves through this process, some find themselves in the position whereby they don’t end up securing legal aid or they cannot continue because they are asked to pay a significant financial contribution that they cannot afford. Families in each of these scenarios are left in the same situation and that is that they face the prospect of having to stand up and face those lawyers alone. In a process that is meant to put the family at the heart of an inquest, they couldn’t feel more alone and out of their depth.

Becky Montacute has described her bid to ensure that lesson’s were learned from her mother’s death.

Becky’s mum, Julie, sadly died on 22 February 2018, aged 56. Julie is described as a wonderful mum, who put the needs of everyone else before her own. Julie suffered her mental health which placed her at a significant risk of self harm. Prior to her death she asked for help from mental health services and was actively seeking treatment and support. Julie went missing twice and on the second occasion, she was involved in a serious road traffic collision. Professionals, including the police raised concerns that this was a deliberate attempt to harm herself but despite this, she was sent home without any proper or meaningful follow up treatment of guidance.

Julie’s husband repeatedly tried to get help from the local mental health trust. Julie was eventually offered an appointment six days later. In desperation, Julie’s husband arranged an emergency appointment with her GP, but her GP cancelled this, saying she was the responsibility of the mental health team.

Julie never got to see anyone and sadly died the next day.

For Julie’s family, the inquest into her death was the only chance they had to find out the circumstances of how Julie came to her death. Becky, a shocked and grief-stricken 26 year old, whose mother had just died, had to get to grips quickly with a complicated legal process. A process, that no one ever expects to be faced with. It was explained to her that as her mum died in community mental health care rather than whilst sectioned, the family wouldn’t qualify for legal aid.

Becky had to do everything herself.

She received advice from friends and spoke with the charity INQUEST, who assigned her a case worker to ask for advice and support her through the process. Becky had to read though medical notes and the mental health trust’s own investigation without any legal advice or guidance. These investigation reports can often be extremely upsetting to read and contain a lot of complex medical terminology. To add to Becky’s distress, without warning, she came across her mother’s cause of death – drowning.

The advice of experienced lawyers is critical in situations like this. Originally, the Coroner only wanted to look at the few days leading up to Julie’s death. Becky was able to find a lawyer to provide advice, but she could not afford one to attend all the hearings. The lawyer advised Becky that she could push for the scope of the inquest to be extended to investigate the weeks prior to Julie’s death where she had been desperately seeking help. This was crucial as several of the failings identified by the Coroner at the end of the inquest arose during that period.

The inquest revealed that Julie should have been referred to the emergency team the day before she died. If this had happened, she would have been made a top priority and someone would have come out to see her within an hour. There is no doubt in Becky’s mind that if this had happened, her mum wouldn’t have died.

The Coroner found nine failings in the care that Julie received. One failing was that a mental health nurse was meant to be assessing Julie, yet failed to ask anything about her mental health. This was described as a “gross failure” as did all the failings taken together.

As a result of Julie’s death and the failings that her inquest revealed, the mental health trust have since agreed to make several changes, including changes in staff training and improvements in the exchange of information between A&E and mental health nurses.

Becky submitted Freedom of Information request to 53 mental health trusts in England, asking how much they spent on representation at inquests in 2017-2018. About half responded, revealing they had spent more than £4million. Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership, the trust who were responsible for Julie’s care, spent almost £200,000 on legal representation for inquests last year.

Likewise, as described in a previous blog of ours, it was revealed this year that it has been revealed that the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on its own legal representation in 2017, while bereaved families received just £92,000 in legal aid.

The Independent Review of the Mental Health Act 1983 report recommends that the ‘families of those who have died should receive non-means-tested legal aid’ and is therefore a welcome addition to widespread calls for change on this urgent issue. This follows written and oral evidence by INQUEST to the review team.

INQUEST continue in their fight for the introduction of automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following state related deaths and you can support them in their campaign by signing the petition on the following link:

Becky’s story is being heard on ‘Families v the state: An unfair fight?’ on File on 4, on BBC Radio 4, at 20:00 on 1 October 2019.

Farleys’ inquest team have extensive experience of representing bereaved families at inquests, including those who have been granted legal aid funding.  For information about obtaining funding for representation at inquests, please contact the team on 0845 287 0939 or complete our online contact form.