Jacintha Saldanha: It's vital that grieving families have legal assistance in the Coroner's court

Families can be completely at sea without specialist help

A Coroner’s court is a very intimidating place for anyone.  But a bereaved family is unique - they are grieving the sudden death of a loved one. It is unfair to expect a family to represent themselves, which would require them to ask questions of individuals who have, in some way or another, been involved in the death of a loved one, particularly where those other parties would usually be represented by experienced lawyers.

All too often following a death bereaved families struggle to find out what happened. For most families the inquest is the only independent forum in which questions can be asked, enabling them to understand the circumstances of the death. Unfortunately, there is huge variability with regard to the level of support coroners are willing to provide to bereaved families. If any issue of law or procedure arises, which they often do, particularly in a case such as this which is very high profile, the family would be completely at sea without specialist legal help.

Of course it can be said that since the nature of the proceedings is inquisitorial (not adversarial), the Coroner therefore fulfils the role of an advocate for the bereaved. But sadly this often is not the case; the reality can be very different – other interested parties will often seek to avoid criticism and will, themselves, have lawyers to assist that aim. This creates a complete inequality of arms.  Depriving a family of representation in proceedings of such fundamental importance is not only a huge pressure, at what is usually one of the most upsetting times of a family’s life, but it also may exclude them from effectively participating in the inquest.

Charlotte Haworth Hird is a solicitor at Birdmans LLP

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