Week 2: Inquest inequalities #107days

If someone dies unexpectedly in detention (in prison, immigration services, police custody or under mental health sectioning) there is a legal requirement that the coroner must hold an inquest. An inquest is a public investigation to establish who the person was, and where, when and how they died. If someone dies in the care of the state, then article 2 of the European Convention on Human rights (the right to life) is evoked, and the coroner may decided to hold an article 2 inquest. This is more thorough and far reaching than inquests into deaths that do not engage this duty.

For further info, INQUEST have thorough info and excellent caseworkers to provide advice.

This all seems fairly straightforward but in practice is a lot murkier and difficult for families to negotiate. Here are some of the issues that we’ve learned over the past year or so.

1. The NHS can use public funding to pay for legal representation at inquests

Astonishingly, NHS trusts are able to fund expert legal teams while families can only rarely access exceptional funding to cover their costs. The criteria for exceptional funding is enormously complicated and confusing. The cost of legal representation is not only for attendance at the inquest (and pre-inquest review meetings) but involves a large amount of preparatory work. Our solicitor has read through extensive documentation and records, identified issues to be brought to the attention of the coroner, written submissions, created a witness list and repeatedly requested missing documentation from Southern Health. So far, this has cost around £14,000.

Last month a High Court ruling in a case brought by Joanna Letts (who was trying to establish whether her brother’s death was related to hospital failings) says official guidance on whether to provide legal aid has been ‘misleading and inaccurate’.

2. Inquests are supposed to be inquisitorial and not adversarial

In practice, NHS trusts may be very keen to narrow the focus of inquests to reduce potential damage to reputation and avoid negative findings by the coroner. Sloven had an expert barrister in representing the police and medical defence organisations at the first pre-inquest review meeting. He argued that an article 2 inquest was not necessary because the article 2 procedural obligations were met by the various ongoing investigations relating to LB’s death. He also argued the conditions for having a jury were not met because drowning was not an ‘unnatural’ death. The Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties, Simon Hughes, argues that families do not need legal representation at inquests. The coroner should make the process understandable. This is clearly nonsensical given the legal arguments banging back and forth between the Sloven legal team and ours.

3. Witness coaching

Witness coaching is clearly common at inquests. Rosi Reed documented the obvious coaching Sloven employees had undergone at Nico’s recent inquest. There have also been repeated questions about the behaviour of staff at Joshua Titcombe’s inquest, and the common view is that staff were clearly coached. Indeed, Dr Bill Kirkup in his investigation into what happened at Morecambe Bay had this to say:

We also found evidence of inappropriate distortion of the process of preparation for an inquest, with circulation of what we could only describe as ‘model answers’. Central to this was the conflict of roles of one individual who inappropriately combined the functions of senior midwife, maternity risk manager, supervisor of midwives and staff representative. We make no criticism of staff for individual errors, which, for the most part, happen despite their best efforts and are found in all healthcare systems. Where individuals collude in concealing the truth of what has happened, however, their behaviour is inexcusable, as well as unprofessional.

Kirkup’s report had 44 recommendations for improvements, number 30 is as follows:

30. A national protocol should be drawn up setting out the duties of all Trusts and their staff in relation to inquests. This should include, but not be limited to, the avoidance of attempts to ‘fend off’ inquests, a mandatory requirement not to coach staff or provide ‘model answers’, the need to avoid collusion between staff on lines to take, and the inappropriateness of relying on coronial processes or expert opinions provided to coroners to substitute for incident investigation. Action: NHS England, the Care Quality Commission.

It is explicitly clear that if a family hopes to establish what actually happened to their loved one then a legal team with expertise in getting beyond learned statements is necessary.

Yesterday the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons published a report Investigating clinical incidents in the NHS. You can read the JusticeforLB response to it here, while we welcome it’s recommendations, we do not think they go far enough.

It is crystal clear that more reform is needed of the inquest system in the UK. The system is archaic and there is no parity of arms.

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Day 103: Person centred practice, nursing students, and a legal webchat #107days

Day 103 is our first three-way share of a day. It is shared by Max of the UK Learning Community for Person Centred Practices, Bridget and Sarah from School of Nursing Sciences at UEA, and Steve Broach from Doughty Street Chambers.

When asked why they were supporting #JusticeforLB and #107days the UK Learning Community for Person Centred Practices had this to say:

We wanted to support the #JusticeforLB campaign because it highlighted how far we still have to go in the UK with promoting person centred planning, thinking and approaches. Even though these approaches were right at the heart of the ‘Valuing People’ strategy for people with learning disabilities since 2001, staff at the Assessment and Treatment Unit where Connor Sparrowhawk was confined in the 107 days running up to his avoidable death did not understand what Connor’s family were trying to achieve by holding a Person Centred Review at the ATU, and did not respect this work, saying it “Was not the Care Programme Approach”. It seems clear from the Verita’s report, and from other accounts, that if the ATU had listened properly to Connors’ family when they told them what was important to Connor now and in the future, and the things that would help to keep him healthy and safe (such as a proper approach to his epilepsy), his death could have been avoided.

This is what they decided to do:

Day103PostcardQu

I contacted the campaign on behalf of the UK Learning Community for Person Centred Practices. Our national gathering was coming up on April 30 2014, and I wanted to ensure that everybody there heard about Connor’s story. At the closing of the gathering, Gail Hanrahan, a close friend of Connor’s family spoke to everyone so passionately and movingly about Connor and his life. We shared a #JusticeforLB postcard with every participant (about 50 people) and asked them to make 2 pledges:

  1. Firstly to tell us how they would use their postcard to share Connor’s story, and
  2. Secondly what they would do in their work to ensure that within their sphere of influence, people and their families were listened to.

We’ve followed up those pledges asking people to let us know what they’ve done. Here are some of the responses we’ve received.

Cath Barton said ‘I always read Sara’s blogs and share and have made a pledge for George Julian’s #hairhack fundraiser which is raising money for Justice for LB and Rowcroft Hospice’.

‘My action is to always support people and their families to have a voice and be listened to. I hope my role as Community Circles Connector will help people develop relationships and networks which will support them to be heard and valued’.

Penny Jackson said ‘I am due to deliver Person Centred Thinking training in July to our Independent Futures staff and will be including LB’s story within this’

Max Neill took the big #JusticeforLB poster to share with the Preston Learning Disability Forum. They displayed it at events during Learning Disability Week in Preston.

Every story about how these person centred skills have worked and made a difference increases the impetus for change. If we can succeed in turning these person centred behaviours into everyday habits, at scale across whole services and sectors, then we can create fundamental lasting change in the culture, in the way we include and involve families and in the way we regard people.

Max and TLCPCP have written a fuller write up of their context, their gathering and the actions that have followed. You can read it in full here.

The second group sharing Day 103 are staff with interests in safeguarding and learning disability from the School of Nursing Sciences, UEA, Norwich. When Bridget Penhale and Sarah Richardson were asked why they were supporting the campaign they said:

We didn’t know LB personally but followed his mother’s blog from before he was admitted to Slade House and were very upset at the news of his untimely death. We have followed and supported the development of the campaigns since.

They were keen to ensure that a large number of staff and students at their university heard LB’s story. This is what they have planned:

On Day 103, sessions in the Essential Nursing Practice module for first year undergraduate nursing students are being dedicated to LB. The module covers the role of the Community Learning Disability Nurse and one of the specific topics today is about epilepsy; this is a core condition that our students learn about from the beginning of their programme (but also focus on throughout their course).

The Enquiry Based Learning Package is dedicated to Connor and students taking the module will be introduced to him at the beginning of the day. The Lecture on Introduction to Epilepsy will also be dedicated to Connor.

Information about Connor and the campaign will also be available for everyone working in or visiting our building on that day (through a slide on our plasma screen in the reception area of the building). We will continue to raise awareness about Connor, his life and untimely death throughout the coming year(s) – for as long as it takes.

The final person sharing today is Steve Broach, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Described on twitter yesterday as a miracle, a ‘competent barrister able to put suffering people at ease’, Steve has very generously offered to run a legal webchat, an hour long Q&A session tonight at 7.30pm.

Steve will be holding a free web Q&A on the law in relation to education, health and care services for disabled young people in England. Steve will look at both the current law and the changes coming soon under the Children and Families Act 2014 and the Care Act 2014. He will also cover what the Human Rights Act 1998 should mean for the standard and quality of care disabled young people receive. Steve can only answer questions about the law in England, as the other UK nations have different legal frameworks, although some of the general points he makes will be relevant across the UK.

We are very grateful to Steve for his offer, and know that many of you will wish to make use of this opportunity. To participate you can send your questions in advance using the hashtag #JusticeforLBLaw, or add them on our facebook page, or as a comment to the web-chat blog page, and Steve will answer as many as possible tonight.

Please note Steve can only answer general questions about the law and cannot provide advice on individual cases during this session.

Please share the information about the web-chat far and wide, this is a great opportunity, and one that we hope many people will be able to learn from.