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Ministry of Justice makes decision regarding state-funded legal representation
On average, one baby a week dies of Group B Streptococcus infection (GBS) in the UK. Given that these fatalities are not ‘natural’ in any sense, many are notified to the local coroner and if on the initial evidence, it appears that there were oversights or misdiagnoses, it is likely that an inquest will be held.
To lose a child, particularly if the death could have been prevented, must be the most dreadful experience any parent could face. If that experience then has to be re-lived in public in the Coroners’ Court, the parents will need all the support, advice and practical help they can get. It is standard for both hospitals and medical defence organisations to provide legal representation for clinicians called to give evidence at the inquest – as a former NHS solicitor, I spent a dozen years providing exactly that. But even when I was acting for the doctors, nurses and midwives involved in the death I still found it profoundly unfair that the family were usually unrepresented. Few knew the right questions to ask or the way the system worked.
As such, I was relieved some time ago when the Ministry of Justice appointed a commission to look into State-funded legal representation for families in this situation. However, the MoJ has now decided that this vital assistance will not be provided, largely on costs grounds. The arguments on which this decision was based make little sense. First, it is said that it would be wrong to assume that the State is always represented. In my experience of over 250 inquests, it always has been, without exception. Secondly, the Ministry asserts that there is no evidence that lawyers would assist the bereaved family. I wish the author would attend Coroners’ Courts a few times and see just how un-level the playing field is. Finally, the argument is raised that further lawyers might ‘hinder the process’. If the Ministry really believed that they could easily simplify the process even more by ensuring that the NHS is not legally represented either.
Obviously, the ideal solution would be to take all possible steps to ensure that no more babies die of Group b streptococcus. Until that ideal is reached or even approached, when the worst occurs and tragedy does strike, the affected families need all the help they can get to cut through the usual evasions and to find the truth.