Who can bring a legal claim after the death of a loved one?
At Saunders Law we often represent clients whose loved ones have died in tragic circumstances. Often a public authority such as police force or prison has contributed to or caused the death in some way. The Coroner’s inquest into a death is a powerful method for getting to the truth of what happened in the case of a suspicious, unnatural or violent death. However an inquest does not attribute legal liability. By contrast, family members are also able to bring civil claims in the courts against institutions who are in some way responsible for the death.
Bereaved relatives often feel uncomfortable about claiming damages after a death. Whilst it is true that no amount of money can bring a loved one back or truly undo the wrongs that have already happened, a civil claim is a powerful tool for achieving accountability. Families are often left in financial hardship after their loved one’s death and that requires redress. Moreover it is sometimes possible to obtain an apology for the death, and/or a declaration from the Court that the deceased’s human rights have been breached.
Who can claim?
There are a number of different legal avenues for bringing a civil claim.
Close relatives (including partners) can claim in their own right under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act. The law here is relatively complex but most typically an ‘operational’ breach of Article 2 is committed where there was a real and foreseeable risk to the deceased’s life, of which the Defendant was aware or ought to have been aware, and there were steps which the Defendant could have taken to mitigate that risk but failed to do so.
Under the Law Reform (Misceallaneous Provisions) Act 1934 the deceased’s estate (which becomes its own separate legal entity after the deceased has died) can also claim (via their executor or executrix) for the breach of the deceased’s Article 2 rights, or under negligence. This claim can include:
- General damages for the deceased’s pain suffering and loss of amenity
- Any financial losses incurred between the injury and death
- Funeral expenses paid for by the deceased’s estate
Where a claim is being brought on behalf of the deceased’s estate, it is essential that a member of the family obtains ‘Letters of Administration’ from the probate office.
The Fatal Accidents Act 1976 allows certain dependents to bring a ‘dependency claim’ where the death was caused by the Defendant’s wrongful act, neglect or default. The definition of dependents is wide, and includes the deceased’s spouse, civil partner, children, siblings, uncles/aunts, and parents. Unmarried partners who have been together for more than 2 years can also claim. A dependency claim can include the following losses:
- Loss of financial support from the deceased, including future losses
- Loss of dependency on services provided by the deceased, such as help around the house and providing care
- The loss of services provided by a partner/parent
- Funeral expenses if paid by the dependent
A statutory sum known as a ‘bereavement award’ (currently £15,120) can be claimed by a spouse, civil partner, cohabiting partner, or (if the deceased was under 18 and unmarried) parents.
As is clear form the above there is a tangle of different claims that can be brought by different family members. This is a complex area of law and there are also strict time limits, so specialist legal advice should be sought as soon as possible.