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Inquests, social media and families searching for answers

Human rights lawyer Merry Varney, who represents the families of Molly Russell and Zoe Watts, discusses the challenges families face with the inquest system and the importance of examining social media and digital data when investigating a death.

Coroner
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Merry is a partner in the human rights department.  She has a particular interest in using the law to protect children, vulnerable adults and patients.  She tweets as @merryvarney
Few people know about inquests and roles of coroners in any detail until they are forced to by the death of a loved one. Some sadly go through the process and, having been told they don’t need lawyers, also become none the wiser about the laws and procedures governing the investigation into their loved one’s death. In the worst cases they are left completely at a loss, often very emotionally bruised, about how a Coroner has decided how their loved one died.

Where it is believed that someone’s death was unnatural, and this covers all deaths which may have been due to a self-inflicted act, there will always be an inquest. What that inquest will consist of, from how long it will last to what issues the coroner looks at, varies not only on the particular circumstances of the death, but also depending on the individual approach of the coroner presiding over the inquest. 
 
Speak to members of the INQUEST lawyers group and you will get countless examples of the variety in approaches of coroners and worse still the number of examples where the instruction of lawyers by the bereaved family leads to a complete change in approach.
 
The very basic position is that coroners (or juries) have to reach a conclusion (previously known as a verdict) about how a death occurred. This can be anything from a one word answer, to a couple of sentences, to a completed questionnaire. Where a death may have been by way of suicide, the key issues in considering a conclusion are whether the deceased deliberately took the steps which ended their life and whether the deceased had the intention to end their life. 
 
It is in relation to this last difficult task of having to consider the deceased’s mindset that I feel there needs to be greater consideration of the relevance of digital evidence and in particular social media. This is an issue which the family of Molly Russell have been pushing for ahead of Molly’s inquest and have been lucky to be assisted by a coroner who seems to recognise the importance of this information.
 
In another of my cases representing the family of 19-year-old Zoe Watts at the inquest into her death, information about her social media use was not known until after the inquest procedure had already begun. This was not to suggest it would have been the focus of the inquest as the family had their concerns about the standard of Zoe’s care vindicated by the jury, but it did highlight the potential of hidden evidence being held on social media.

For Zoe’s family they were not even aware at the time of the inquest that Zoe had multiple social media accounts, let alone the contents of what she was posting in the period before her death. Police had carried out various searches at the time of her death – looking for a note in her bedroom on the hospital ward and for example searching online browsing history and text messages, but none of this lead to uncovering the social media posts which were received as the final hearing was starting.

At the time of the inquest into Zoe’s death in early July 2018, to return a conclusion of suicide, it was widely accepted by coroners and lawyers that the jury would have had to be satisfied that is was beyond reasonable doubt that she both committed the act which ended her life, and had the intention to end her life. The coroner decided there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find that it was beyond reasonable doubt that Zoe intended to end her life and as such, did not leave this for the jury to decide.  The family welcomed the jury’s narrative conclusion citing failures in Zoe’s care as having possibly contributed to her death.

Later that month, in July 2018,  the High Court ruled that instead coroners should determine whether a death was by suicide using the lower standard of proof, a balance of probabilities. The case is currently subject to appeal but in the meantime, this brings into stark focus the need for coroners to have access to all relevant information about a deceased’s state of mind prior to a death through self-inflicted means as this may have impact on the outcomes of other inquests, especially those where families are at a complete loss in understanding how their loved one came by their death. For Zoe, she had told staff that she was unsafe and would end her life if discharged.

Against a backdrop of an almost 70% rise in the number of teenagers dying through suicide in this country over the last decade, it is imperative that coroners are fulfilling their public function of investigating all deaths through self inflicted means fully and identifying how any risks to future lives are minimised.

It is now well documented that social media not only reaches into almost all young people’s lives, but also that it can have a very damaging impact on mental health for some, as well as helping others.

It is my view that to ensure coroners have the relevant information they need to consider whether a death was by way of suicide consideration must always be given to whether not only physical evidence such as notes exist, but also whether there is any relevant digital data, where it is and how to obtain it.

I believe further guidance is needed to help coroners and those acting on behalf of bereaved families so it is known in advance what digital data gathering will be done and that the approach is consistent across the country. This should also assist in ensuring any risks of harm presented by social media are brought to the attention of coroners, who then have a duty to issue a Prevention of Future Deaths report setting out those concerns.

This blog was updated on 4th February 2019
 

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