The Big Picture: The forgotten bereaved

Despite increasing concern about deaths in custody and the treatment of bereaved people, the secure estate is insufficiently resourced and failing to reduce deaths in custody.

A new publication from Inquest traces the political, legal and recent historical context of deaths in custody and families’  experiences from the time of death to the conclusion of the investigation and inquest. It makes 80 recommendations, argues for improvements to accountability and learning, and calls for the creation of a standing commission on custodial deaths.

Many agencies could play a crucial role in supporting bereaved people by providing information and referral to specialist   support. Early and well informed emotional and practical advice and support can make a big difference and professionals should be trained to understand the impact of the current system and the complex responses of people bereaved by a death in custody.

The system’s failings have a damaging effect on bereaved people.

Two to three-year delays from the death to the inquest can result in families being unable to grieve, their lives being put on hold and frustrating the ability to learn lessons. For many, the lack of understanding of their needs leads to unnecessary further distress and destruction of their quality of life. These problems and the stigma attached to deaths in custody mean that informed support can really help the many families who fi nd it hard to live with their isolation and despair.

The counselling profession needs to ensure it is equipped to assist such families, that they know how to access its services and that it can refer families for practical and legal advice.

If the coroner service is improved, if legal practice surrounding inquests is of a higher standard and better regulated, if bereavement and the counselling agencies have a better understanding of the support needs of families bereaved by deaths in detention, then the basic needs of these families will be met.

Mental health professionals and bereavement counsellors should be recognised partners within the coroner system and therefore contribute to ensuring that the processes that follow a death do not add to a family’s distress.

Helen Shaw and Deborah Coles, co-directors of Inquest
➔ Unlocking the Truth – Families’ Experience of the Investigation of Deaths in Custody (Inquest , September 2007, from, priced £10)


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