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Leading human rights lawyer gives evidence on the rights of bereaved families at Inquests

Lawyer Merry Varney from the human rights team at Leigh Day gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday 7th March as the committee considered human rights

Merry Varney giving evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights

12 March 2018

Lawyer Merry Varney from the human rights team at Leigh Day gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Wednesday 7th March as the committee considered a family members’ rights to be involved at inquests into a death which may have resulted from a breach of the state’s obligation to protect life, under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights brought into UK law by the Human Rights Act.

Before Merry gave her evidence, the committee heard powerful evidence from the families of Connor Sparrowhawk and Joseph Phuong who both died whilst in the care of the state.

Sara Ryan and Richard Huggins, parents of Connor Sparrowhawk, spoke powerfully about how they felt they had to ‘fight’ the NHS who they explained had paid for seven barristers to defend the health service at Connor’s inquest.

18 year old Connor died in an NHS Assessment and Treatment Unit (Slade House) in Oxford in July 2013, following an epileptic fit.

At his inquest in October 2015 the jury returned a narrative verdict that neglect had contributed to his death. Last month a doctor was suspended for a year after being found responsible for 39 failings before Connor’s death.

Louise Rowland and Simon Rowland, sister of Joseph Phuong and her husband, told how they had felt let down by the system after the death of Joseph in June 2015 following contact with the police and mental health services in West London.

At Joseph’s inquest in October 2017 the jury returned a narrative verdict criticising the response to his medical emergency as “chaotic, disorganised and lacking urgency” which possibly contributed to his death.

The evidence session to the Committee chaired by Harriet Harman MP followed on from last week’s session which examined questions relating to access to justice.

Article 2 concerns the right to life which places an obligation on the state not only not to take life but also to protect it.

Giving evidence alongside Deborah Coles, the Director of INQUEST and the barrister Katie Gollop QC, Ms Varney described the many barriers that her clients had faced at inquests and more widely in enforcing human rights, including the significant disadvantage faced by those who cannot obtain legal aid.

Speaking to the committee Ms Varney said: "Speaking today on the seventh anniversary of Janet Tracey's death [. I acted for Janet's family in a judicial review about how the right to respect for personal life meant that you had a right to be told that before a Do Not Resuscitate Order had been placed on you as a patient, you should be told and consulted. "Had that family not been eligible for legal aid we would not have been able to take that case, a landmark decision in upholding human rights in end of life care.”

Read Merry's blog on the rights of bereaved families at Inquests here

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