The family of the nurse who apparently took her own life after answering the Duchess of Cambridge hoax call has been denied legal aid for her inquest, The Independent can disclose.
Relatives of Jacintha Saldanha, who will struggle to meet the legal bills, fear the move will prevent them finding out the circumstances surrounding her death.
They need to find thousands of pounds to have any legal representation at the inquest. Without a lawyer, they fear they will struggle to challenge hospital chiefs on the circumstances of Mrs Saldanha being put on reception duty to answer calls from the media on the night the Duchess was admitted.
“The family is of the view they are being deprived their only opportunity to be assisted in a one-day or half-day hearing – the only hearing into what was a very tragic case,” their lawyer John Cooper, QC, who has been working pro bono up to this point, told The Independent.
“It is not just the inquest hearing they need representation for, the family feels they also need to ask if there has been adequate disclosure. It is he Coroner’s decision who to call; to say the Coroner can act as the representative for the family is like saying she is advocate and judge in her own court; the family will not be able to say ‘you should have called someone else to the stand’.
“The Saldanha family believe the case will require some pressing questions of the hospital which the Coroner cannot ask.”
Ms Saldanha, who was 46 when she died, left husband Benedict Barboza, 49, son Junal, 17, and daughter Lisha, 14.
Bereaved families are only granted legal aid for inquests in special circumstances, if there is deemed to be a wider public interest or if a relative is required to give evidence.
Although they are automatically made interested parties and, as such, can intervene in the proceedings by themselves, the grieving Saldanha family would face the prospect of having to go head-to-head with experienced lawyers hired by this hospital.
They would also have to negotiate the maze of rules which govern Coroner’s courts without legal help.
“The family will be facing well-equipped parties. It is argued that families don’t need legal representation in Coroner’s courts because they are not adversarial, but that ignores the fact that other parties are represented because they can afford it,” said Mr Cooper QC.
He added: “The family believe there are questions to be asked about the hospital protocols that led to Mrs Saldanha being put in that job on that night.
“They feel this will be the only opportunity they will have to find out exactly what happened to their relative. They say they want to find out the relevant surrounding relevant circumstances which led to her death. Simply saying she committed suicide is not the end of the story; they say they want to know the rest of it.”
A Legal Services Commission spokesman said: “Inquests are not adversarial as the Coroner is concerned with establishing the facts behind a death.
“There is the ability for a family or those connected with a deceased to make submissions or put questions to the Coroner, but funding for advocacy at inquest is only granted on an exceptional basis as it is not covered by the usual scope of legal aid.
“Any funding decision also has to account for an applicant’s financial means, and also those of the immediate family. There is a right of appeal if an application for funding is refused.”
Ms Saldanha was found dead by colleagues after answering a joke call from two Australian DJs while the Duchess of Cambridge was in the hospital’s care. Although she was a nurse, she was working on the reception at the King Edward VII Hospital when the call came in.
According to evidence given by Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector James Harman at Westminster Coroner’s Court, Mrs Saldanha left three notes before she died.
Two of these were in the room where she was found hanging, while a third was found among her personal possessions, police said.
The inquest into her death is being heard by Dr Fiona Wilcox and was adjourned to 26 March.
A spokesman for the King Edward VII Hospital refused to comment.