My 30 years in practice have taught me that people affected by tragedy don’t want sympathy from their lawyers, they want us to fight for them.
A client whose wife and children died in a fire in a tower block, explained why he had chosen me as his lawyer: ‘The others I saw all cried over me but you said, “This is what will happen and this is the struggle we will have.” And it did happen quite like you said and at least we fought for the truth.’
While acting for train crash survivors, I learned that those most often affected by post-traumatic stress disorder turn out to be people who had previously reported coping the best. These were frequently men (women more often sought help) who were successful in their careers and turned down counselling, going straight back to work following a tragedy. After seeing more than one delayed breakdown, I started to warn of future problems.
Another thing I have learned is that, in general, it is best to avoid asking a survivor for a witness statement if the information exists elsewhere, say, if they have given a statement to the police. Sadly, this option is not open to asylum lawyers who have to ask victims of persecution, rape and trafficking for detailed accounts. It may help to do the interview in a more relaxed setting than a solicitor’s office, or over a period of time, to allow space for the client to trust you. The difficulty of getting traumatised people to talk is the biggest reason why the detained fast track, recently declared unlawful by the courts, is wholly unsuitable for anyone who has a genuine asylum claim.
Those bereaved by, but not directly involved in, tragedy often have very different reactions from survivors. They feel excluded from what happened and want to find out as much as possible. If there is any attempt to keep information from them, even from a misguided attempt to protect them, it can produce huge feelings of injustice. At inquests, I suggest to families that they might want to spare themselves from listening to the pathologist’s evidence, but many decide to stay.
What all bereaved families want is to know that the same thing will not happen again to anyone else because of similar failures. I always say that they have the most power to achieve this themselves. Recently, some former clients, whose beautiful children Christi and Bobby Shepherd died of carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday, have demonstrated the power of dignified and articulate campaigning.
The worst time for me was on 5 October 1999, when, one month into the public inquiry into the Southall train crash, the Ladbroke Grove train crash happened, killing 31. I had been hoping to deliver answers to one group of families when I found myself visiting another entirely new group of devastated people. My brother had died a short while earlier, which made it especially difficult. Perhaps I should have taken time out and let someone else deal with train crashes, but it did not feel like an option at the time. I was lucky to get through this but dealing with trauma can affect your own life.
Lord Cullen’s report into the Ladbroke Grove crash made recommendations about train protection that were not implemented, and I still fear another Groundhog Day for head-on train collisions. And then there were more train crashes for different reasons. The Grayrigg derailment five years after the Potters Bar train crash was caused by the same problem – poor maintenance of points.
‘If there is any attempt to keep information from survivors, even from a misguided attempt to protect them, it can produce huge feelings of injustice.’
I think that the families and our legal teams did all we could, but I cannot help feeling that the hugely fragmented, privatised ownership – and therefore accountability – on the railways will continue to compromise safety, unless the government does something about it.
The biggest scandal of all about acting for the bereaved is the paltry level of compensation in this country compared with almost anywhere else in the world. This is important for what it symbolises – that it is cheaper to kill someone than injure them – and that corporations that compromise on safety get off scot-free. The low levels of compensation for death taken together with cuts to legal aid and changes in conditional fee arrangements also threaten access to justice. If only just one politician would take an interest in these issues.
See page 16.