Bereaved families call for legal aid

Corinda Taylor of the Life Matters suicide prevention trust with suicide bereaved Hamilton mother Jane Stevens, who is supporting Mrs Taylor's petition calling for government funding of bereaved family's legal fees. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Corinda Taylor of the Life Matters suicide prevention trust with suicide bereaved Hamilton mother Jane Stevens, who is supporting Mrs Taylor's petition calling for government funding of bereaved family's legal fees. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Corinda Taylor knows first-hand the financial pressure suicide bereaved families face; she is contemplating selling her family home to fund the ever-mounting fees from a series of legal proceedings which have followed the death of her son Ross in 2013.

She has started a petition which calls for the Government to assist bereaved families with their legal costs.

This week she has received the help of Hamilton mother Jane Stevens, who four years after her son Nicky took his life is still having to prepare herself for court dates.

''This is not theoretical,'' Ms Stevens said.

''I know of one family which did have to sell their home. It's just not a fair process.''

Nicky Stevens died in 2015, after walking out of a mental health facility where he was under compulsory care.

Last year a coronial inquest ruled the death was preventable, a finding the Waikato District Health Board is challenging.

Ms Stevens said her family had engaged a lawyer at the start of their case against the Waikato DHB, but had to dispense with their services as they simply could not afford it.

''We very quickly got up to a bill of tens of thousands and hadn't got anywhere at all.

''We had got to the end of our ability to pay. Twice we went to the DHB to make submissions saying we wanted a level playing field and have the same resources to be able to be at the table, and they said there was no precedent for that and they did not want to do it.''

In 2017, after a four-year-long process, the Health and Disability Commissioner found the Southern District Health Board and his doctor breached the HDC code relating to services being provided with reasonable care and skill to Ross Taylor.

A range of legal issues have arisen in the interim as the case slowly moves towards a coronial inquest, scheduled for November.

''It cost us a lot of money to take the case through the HDC process, and if we hadn't done that they wouldn't have found any fault,'' Mrs Taylor said.

''Do families keep quiet and allow this to happen or do we go to the extent of employing lawyers? Because I couldn't have done it without lawyers.''

Mrs Taylor wants Ross to have his day in court, but that day is likely to be a week-long hearing and the price of the preparation time a legal team requires for that kind of case - let alone the court time itself - quickly mounts up.

''The SDHB and the doctor have the best legal representation, they have expert opinions . . . and that is funded by the taxpayer, so there is a power imbalance.

''They have all the resources and we as a family do not have those resources.''

Mrs Taylor's petition has garnered almost 2000 signatures since being launched last month.

Mrs Stevens said she met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently and they had discussed the issue of legal aid for families.

''She acknowledged it was something that they needed to address, so they at least have a bit more understanding of the need to support suicide bereaved families, but there has been nothing substantial in the two years in which we have been raising it.''

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

Need help?
Healthline 0800 611 116
Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Samaritans 0800 726 666
Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797
General mental health inquiries: 0800 44 33 66
The Depression Helpline 0800 111 757

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