Giving Families a Voice at Inquests after COVID-19

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There is no doubt that the past year has been extremely difficult for families seeking justice for their loved ones who have died suddenly or unexpectedly. In her latest blog, Litigation Executive Nicola Culverhouse, from our Bristol office, outlines the difficulties bereaved families have experienced and the future for inquests after COVID-19, now the pandemic is hopefully behind us.

COVID-19 has brought many challenges for the legal system and bereaved families going through the inquest process.

Before COVID-19, inquests were already difficult for families who have tragically lost loved ones to deal with. But the pandemic has brought a whole new set of challenges, impacting how inquests operate.

Some families have had to wait over a year for their inquest even to be listed, and some families were sadly not able to attend their loved one’s inquest due to coronavirus concerns, including self-isolation requirements, social distancing regulations, and lockdown rules.

For most lawyers, remote hearings and inquests are now the norms in many Courts across the country.  The legal system has adapted well to this new ‘virtual world’ where meetings are conducted via Zoom, and we represent our clients in Court online.

However, it is vital to remember that most families are not used to the legal process. Many who have lost a loved one in tragic circumstances have never had to engage the services of a lawyer, never mind get their heads around the aims and objectives of inquest proceedings.

One of the main concerns raised by families that we represent at inquests is that they want to ensure their loved one’s stories are heard. They want to have a voice and speak about the significant impact of losing their loved one on the family.

Sadly, COVID-19 has made this particularly difficult for families who have struggled to find the right legal representation and who have found themselves unable to attend inquests in person.

Christopher Johnson, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, who has worked with Novum Law on several high-profile inquests, agrees:

“From a barrister’s perspective, remote inquests during the Covid-19 pandemic have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is clearly in the interests of bereaved families, in the interests of justice and in the interests of learning rapidly from mistakes for inquests to proceed without delay. On the other hand, remote inquests pose many challenges, and those challenges are particularly acute for the bereaved family.

“In my view, the two most significant challenges are, first, ensuring that the family feels that justice is being done (there is something about the atmosphere and solemnity of a Courtroom that is lost over Zoom), and, second, ensuring that the family can participate effectively (including being seen and heard by the Coroner and/or the jury, and including having proper access to materials and to their legal teams).

“It is for us as lawyers, in cooperation with the Courts, to ensure that these challenges are overcome. A good example of this was working with Novum Law’s specialist inquest lawyers in Mary Smith and Nicola Culverhouse at the recent inquest into the death of Azra Hussain (nee Sultan).

“The Court allowed the family to attend in-person following difficulties with their video connection, and during which the family and the legal team were in constant contact by phone and instant messenger. Given that (at least in the short-term) remote hearings look set to continue and to become more and more normal for us as lawyers, it will be important to recall the difficulties that they pose, particularly for bereaved families.”

Clearly, it is important to put families at the heart of the inquest process. If loved ones have died while being cared for by the state or while in detention, they will be desperate to get answers about any failures in care or processes that led to the tragic loss of their beloved family member.

All of us involved in the legal system need to ensure that all families still have a voice during the inquest process, whether attending in person or as a virtual participant.

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