Group aims to overhaul inquests

A SUPPORT group is launching a campaign to reform inquest procedures long regarded by lawyers as fundamentally unjust.

The group, Inquest, has put together a package of measures, including a call for proper rights and legal aid for families of the deceased. The proposals will be included in a Private Member's Bill currently being drafted.

The organisation argues that inquest hearings are often one-sided, with bereaved families unfit to represent themselves and bewildered by the legal system.

“The result is the continued scapegoating and pathologising of individuals while the failures of the system are not adequately addressed,” says Inquest.

Inquest is supported by a legal group involving around 120 barristers and solicitors, who act for families, often pro bono, referred to them by the group.

Christian Fisher & Co partner Louise Christian, a co-founder of Inquest, said that reform was long overdue. “Inquests run completely contrary to what one might expect in a normal court of law,” said Christian.

“Families are very shocked when they discover the inquest system gives no rights or respect and does not allow them the opportunity to challenge the version of events put forward by authorities who might have a vested interest in concealing the facts,” she said. The bill will include provisions for:

legal aid for relatives to be represented at inquests in certain situations, particularly when families are confronting well-represented institutional or government bodies such as the police, prisons, or hospitals;

advance disclosure of all relevant documents to families' lawyers;

the right to address the coroner and jury on the facts of the case, rather than merely ask questions;

the right of the jury to make recommendations to prevent similar fatalities.

Inquest and its lawyers aim to give detailed, expert briefings to MPs to win parliamentary support.

The organisation, set up after the death of Blair Peach in a Southall demonstration in 1979, campaigns over deaths in suspicious circumstances such as in police custody or prison. It also assisted families after the Hillsborough and Marchioness disasters.

Inquest group lawyer Fiona Murphy of BM Birnberg & Co is acting in the case of Richard O'Brien, allegedly killed by the police. A ruling is expected this week.