This (young legal aid) life: Oliver Carter

It’s Thursday morning but it doesn’t feel like it. Somehow the week so far has felt both incredibly long and like it has passed in a blur. I’m back in the office after spending most of the last fortnight in court and I’m playing catch up.  This article is part of The (young legal aid) life series – you can read the other articles here.

At the beginning of the week, I was in London attending the final days of an inquest. I’m representing the family of Sean (not his real name), a man who died last year while detained under the Mental Health Act on a psychiatric intensive care unit.

The independent cardiology expert instructed (at our request) by the coroner concluded that the medical cause of Sean’s death was heart failure, but his family are concerned that hospital staff did not properly monitor his physical health after his admission to the psychiatric unit. The evidence also indicates that the efforts to resuscitate Sean after he was found unresponsive were inadequate, and it is unclear whether his life might have been saved if effective resuscitation had been carried out.

The case is funded by legal aid, which is not generally available for legal representation at inquests because the government considers them to be an inquisitorial, rather than an adversarial, process. This is not my experience of inquests involving public bodies, which routinely instruct lawyers where they are named by the coroner as interested parties.

Thankfully, we were able to persuade the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to grant exceptional funding to represent Sean’s family at the inquest because he died in state detention and there was an arguable breach of his right to life, under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

During the course of the case I moved from London to Birmingham, and the prospects of the LAA funding accommodation for me while attending the inquest hearing in these circumstances were non-existent. Fortunately, a friend from school lives within walking distance of the Coroner’s Court. Waking up on my friend’s sofa each morning gives me an opportunity to reflect on the life of a fat cat legal aid lawyer.

After hearing evidence over four days, the jury was sent out by the coroner to reach a conclusion about how and in what circumstances Sean died. An afternoon passes with the jury deliberating in private, while I wait at the Coroner’s Court with the family. I have my laptop and the court wifi enables me to work on a draft letter before claim in a judicial review case and consider a new age assessment challenge for an unaccompanied asylum seeker from Afghanistan.

It takes until lunchtime the following day for the jury to agree on their conclusion. It has been a complex case and I sympathise with the jury members tasked with determining how Sean died and whether any failings by healthcare staff contributed to his death. The jury concludes that Sean died from natural causes due to heart failure, and that in all probability effective resuscitation would not have altered the outcome. However, the jury also finds that there were serious issues with communication and emergency procedures adopted by hospital staff.

The inquest has been a long and difficult process for the family. For many families, the inquest can bring a sense of closure following the unexpected death of a loved one. I hope this inquest has answered my clients’ questions about how Sean died.

Back at the office on Thursday, and shortly before midday my supervisor passes me a letter from the Court of Protection. The letter is dated last Wednesday but has not reached me until today. It says the court has listed a hearing tomorrow morning at 10am. Tomorrow morning. This is less than ideal. The words I say to the colleague sitting opposite me are probably unprintable.

I am not sure why the court has listed this hearing at such short notice. I check the application we filed at court last month and I see that we asked for a hearing to be listed about two months from today’s date. As we are still waiting for disclosure of a number of documents from the local authority, I take the view that it will not be possible to achieve anything at the hearing tomorrow. I decide it is best to try to convince the court to vacate the hearing.

My client is an elderly man with dementia who has been assessed to lack capacity, so I contact his advocate to inform them of the hearing and to take instructions. I speak to the solicitor for the local authority, who seems to be equally surprised by the listing. We agree to apply for the hearing to be vacated and re-listed, and most of the afternoon is spent preparing an application and consent order to file at court, preparing for the hearing and seeking to instruct counsel in the event that it does go ahead, and chasing the court for a response once the application has been filed.

Just after 5pm, I receive confirmation that our consent order has been approved by a judge and the hearing has been vacated. Having spent several hours dealing with this unexpected hearing, I can now focus on the work I intended to do when I got to the office this morning.

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