The families of two young men who died while in the care of the authorities have called for legal aid to be made more available for those fighting well-funded authorities attempting to “cover up” their failings.
During a hearing of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, the parents of Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in a bath after suffering a seizure while in the care of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, said they faced a total of seven barristers representing different sections of the NHS and the local authorities while they were reliant on the support of the Inquest charity and lawyers providing their services for free.
Richard Huggins, Connor’s stepfather, said without that legal support important information from the post mortem would have been missed making it difficult for him and Connor’s mother Sara Ryan to fully probe the death of the 18-year-old at Slade House in Oxfordshire in 2013.
He said: “The way that Sara was brutalised by a number of the seven barristers employed by the NHS to defend themselves was really outrageous.
“If it had not been for Inquest and two legal people who gave us help pro bono, without that we would have been totally ill-prepared, we would have taken at face value that we didn’t need legal representation.”
Ms Ryan said: “You can see the trust is trying to narrow the process of the inquest to make it just down to that point rather than bringing in the broader sweep and that is where legal representation comes in again.”
Mr Huggins added that the coroner should act in a more “inquisitorial” way rather than acting as a “referee between legal teams” in order to enable the inquest to properly probe deaths.
Simon Rowland, brother-in-law of Joseph Phuong, who died in police custody in south London in 2015, said: “I would start at the very basic level of funding legal representation for the families.
“We had six or seven barristers (against us), too many to count really, all with full legal teams, all publicly-funded while the family, who are really the injured party, are expected to fund themselves.”
Harriet Harman, Labour MP and chairwoman of the committee, said: “Where you have lost a loved one and the state is implicated because the loved one was in the care of the state and thereafter the state then weights the system against you because those acting on behalf of the state have full-on legal representation from the word go in order to defend their position and you have nothing unless you happen to find people who are prepared to do it for free.
“If the state transgresses, it weights the system against those who would actually shed a light on it and expose what has gone wrong.”
Southern Health Trust admitted in court breaching health and safety law in the case of Connor.
The jury at the inquest of Mr Phuong, 32, concluded the response to his medical emergency was “chaotic, disorganised and lacking urgency” which “possibly contributed” to his death.