High Peak MP Ruth George has been making the case in Parliament for bereaved families to have legal representation at an inquest into the death of their loved one where state agencies were involved.
The Government reviewed the issue last year but failed to involve affected families and reported in February that they would not be granting legal aid in most cases.
Ruth said: “When someone you love has died in the care of public organisations, it’s incredibly important for families to find out what happened and if any lessons can be learned to help in future.
“State organisations are always represented by barristers at an inquest. It’s grossly unfair to expect families to represent themselves when they are also grieving, and often hearing for the first time exactly how their loved one died.
“Having legal representation helps families through the traumatic process, and to press organisations as to whether there was anything more they could or should have done to prevent the death. Those valuable lessons can help prevent more tragedies in future.
“After raising the issue in a speech and questions in Parliament, I was offered a meeting with Justice Minister Paul Maynard. I felt the Minister needed to hear directly from families about their experience and why legal support was so important, so I asked if Andrew and Angela Pownall from Glossop could attend as well.”
Angela suffered the tragic loss of her son Adrian in December 2016 when, in spite of repeated calls for help to Mental Health services, support was not available. When police found Adrian after he had taken an overdose, they took him to Tameside A&E. However, Arian left before he was triaged. The hospital did not realise the urgency of his situation and did not alert the police or his family that he had left.
Angela and Andrew felt that if all the services had worked as they should, Adrian would have received the crisis support he needed. Once he was in the hospital, his state should have been recorded by staff and police alerted when he left.
Angela and Andrew had to fight to get legal aid for a barrister to assist them at the inquest, making an already difficult and upsetting process even more stressful.
At the hearing, the couple faced three barristers from the hospital, mental health trust and police.
Having the support of the barrister helped them question the statements made by the organisations and allowed them to make sure their concerns were heard.
At the end of the inquest the Coroner concluded that mental health support should have been available, and that the receptionist at A&E should have been able to record that Adrian was very vulnerable and came in with police and that police should be alerted if he left.
Angela told the Minister how the Coroner’s recommendations meant that the weekend gap in mental health support was now being filled.
A further recommendation, that all A&E departments should log when a vulnerable patient arrives with police, has now been added to A&E computer systems across the country.
Angela said’ “We had to fight so hard to get a barrister, right up to the date of the inquest, making an incredibly tough time for us even more difficult.
“But with the help of the barrister, even only at the end of the process, we got some practical recommendations and I’m so pleased they have been implemented. I only hope it will help more people in crisis in future.
“I now meet many families in the same situation as we were, who feel they are having to fight in every direction to try and make sure lessons are learned from the death of their loved one.
“I was pleased to be able to go to Parliament and explain it all to the Minister. He was very sympathetic and it did seem like he was listening. I hope that in future families will get legal aid automatically if they are contesting evidence from lawyers for state organisations.”
Ruth said: “Angela and Andrew were absolutely brilliant. They told the minister exactly how the situation affected them, from their own very personal experience, and that’s more powerful than anything. I hope this will mean we will see change and much better support for families in such a terrible situation.”
Paul Maynard MP said he was considering the evidence he was taking from families and support groups and there would be a report on it in the autumn.