Legal aid 'failures exposed' by Stephen Berry death in custody case, says charity Inquest

By Kris Jepson

The Stephen Berry death in custody case has 'exposed failures' in the legal aid process, according to the charity Inquest.

The London based charity told ITV News Tyne Tees that there should be "automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation, immediately following a state related death".

The inquest into the circumstances surrounding Mr Berry's death concluded on Wednesday that his "death was due to the effects of alcohol withdrawal in circumstances where there were avoidable delays to emergency medical intervention".

Watch @krisjepson's report here:

Stephen Berry died after spending more than 27 hours in custody at Washington Police station in March 2013.

For nearly seven years, his mother and then his daughter, Gemma Berry, had to prepare for the inquest into his death.

Stephen Berry's mother was eligible for legal aid, but when she died three years ago, the process was handed over to her granddaughter, Gemma Berry, who along with her siblings Jake, Ellen and Emily, was ineligible.

Gemma Berry Credit: ITV News

Miss Berry told ITV News Tyne Tees she feels "let down" by the process.

My Nanna was getting legal aid, but when she passed it all got passed over to me and with me working and my partner working we weren’t entitled to any legal aid, so I had to rely on another bereaved family for her support and help through the inquest, because we could have no representation at the inquest.

Gemma Berry

Knowing she could not afford to pay for legal representation, Gemma Berry sought help from another bereaved family who had experienced a similar situation.

Tracey McCourt Credit: ITV News

Tracey McCourt's brother-in-law, Leonard McCourt, died in custody at Peterlee police station in 2010. She was unable to secure legal aid and had to represent herself at the inquest.

Mrs McCourt has no legal training or qualification, yet had to take leave from work for a week to represent Gemma and her family at Mr Berry's inquest and spent hours pouring over hundreds of legal documents to prepare for the hearing.

It’s simply not fair. You know, you have the likes of the police force, sergeants, detention officers are all represented and it comes out the taxpayer’s purse and then you have Gemma who’s in this position through not fault of her own, but isn’t eligible for funding, so it’s just disgraceful. It should be a level playing field for all.

Tracey McCourt
Leonard McCourt Credit: Family Photo

Inquest Campaign

Inquest says it is the only charity in the UK providing expertise on state related deaths.

The charity claims "to date there have been 1,728 deaths in police custody or otherwise following contact with the police in England and Wales since 1990".

It recently highlighted the case of Mark Needham, 52, who died in July 2015 after having five seizures in Northumbria Police custody.

The charity said the jury inquest concluded that "errors by sergeants and a police nurse contributed to his death" and that the "coroner raised concerns about the risk of custody staff becoming 'desensitised' to drunk people and missing deteriorating health conditions as a result".

Inquest campaign Credit: Inquest

It has launched the Now or Never Legal Aid for Inquests campaign which is calling for:

  • Automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.

  • Funding equivalent to that allowed for state bodies/public authorities and corporate bodies represented.

The charity claims state bodies and representatives, like Northumbria Police which was the focus of the Stephen Berry inquest, have "unlimited access to public funds for the best legal teams and experts".

Anita Sharma was the Inquest case worker assigned to Stephen Berry's family. She told ITV News the Berry inquest highlights an "inequality" in the process, which puts bereaved families with no funding up against state institutions that can afford the best lawyers in the land.

These are legal arguments or discussions that take place. Families have no way of understanding those conversations. The quickest way to bring about change and equality of arms would be for an introduction of an automatic non means tested public funding for families facing a death in state, following state contact or in state custody.

Anita Sharma, Inquest
Death in custody Credit: ITV News

Government Response

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice released a statement saying:

Our recent legal aid review found representation for bereaved families is not necessary at the vast majority of inquests because the process is designed to establish the truth and learn lessons, rather than apportion blame in an adversarial way. However, funding is available in some cases and we’re also making changes to ensure there is more support for bereaved families.

Ministry of Justice Spokesperson