UK study reveals challenges faced by bereaved families at inquests

Families often feel overwhelmed and disadvantaged as they navigate the coronial process

UK study reveals challenges faced by bereaved families at inquests

A recent study published by Birkbeck, University of London, and the University of Bath has shed light on the harrowing experiences of bereaved families at inquests, The Law Society Gazette reported.

The study, "Voicing Loss," revealed significant challenges families face as they navigate the coronial process, often feeling overwhelmed and disadvantaged. Researchers interviewed 89 bereaved individuals and 82 coronial professionals to gather insights into the inquest process. One recurring theme was the sense of intimidation and disadvantage faced by families, particularly when state bodies are represented by teams of lawyers.

One father described the intimidation he felt during a pre-inquest review hearing, where numerous public bodies, including the police, National Health Service (NHS) trusts, and schools, were represented by barristers and solicitors. “You get told initially that inquests aren’t adversarial. And then you turn up to a pre-inquest review hearing (PIRH) and all the public bodies have teams of people. It’s not just them and one other person,” he said.

The study also highlighted the emotional toll on parents during inquests. One mother was unable to ask any questions during a two-hour inquest into her son’s death. Another mother realized she was in a world she could not compete with when she learned that the health staff, she was due to question would be legally represented. In some cases, parents received crucial documents mid-hearing, leaving them with only 20 minutes to read distressing information about their child's death.

Bereaved individuals reported feeling ignored by witnesses during hearings and witnessing them laughing and joking outside the courtroom added to their distress. One father, who was questioned for two hours as a witness, described the experience as a battering he had to endure.

The study suggested several straightforward changes to help bereaved families feel more engaged and supported during the coronial process. These recommendations include providing clearer and more concise guidance, ensuring timely communication on case progression and outcomes, avoiding legal jargon in hearings and communications, and presenting distressing evidence with greater sensitivity.

INQUEST, a charity specializing in state-related deaths and their investigation, collaborated with the Voicing Loss team. Deborah Coles, the Director of INQUEST, emphasized the need for urgent reforms.

“We must urgently see families’ legal rights upheld in the inquest process and oversee inquest recommendations to ensure that their preventative potential can be realized and lives can be saved. The voices of bereaved families are too strong, and their stories are too compelling to be ignored,” Coles said in a statement.

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