Legal and financial support for families following a sudden death
Deborah Johnson, principal lawyer, Slater & Gordon lawyers
Slater & Gordon Lawyers is one of the UK’s largest law firms with offices across England, Wales & Scotland. With more than 85 years’ experience, our reputation is built on the range of expertise offered by our partners and staff. We represent clients across a range of practise areas, which include: personal injury, clinical negligence, employment, divorce and family, business, crime and regulatory, commercial and civil litigation, and media, libel and privacy. Additionally, the firm represents the Police Federation of England and Wales and specialises in police law. For further information visit www.slatergordon.co.uk.
Statistics and context
Sudden deaths are unexpected and unexplained, and can be defined as deaths that are certified by coroners. All infant deaths will be categorised as sudden and unexpected and go to a coroner.
There are many causes of sudden death in the UK. Some of the most common forms are:
Road traffic crashes. In 2015, there were 1732 road deaths (a fall of 2% from 2014) 
Fatal injuries in the workplace (144 worker deaths in 2014/15 – an increase of 1.4%) 
Miscellaneous accidents (theme parks, drownings, fires) – one person drowns every 20 hours in the UK 
Suicides – 6581 in the UK in 2014. Highest rate in men aged 45-49 (26.5 deaths per 100,000 people) 
Terrorist attacks accounted for 32,727 deaths worldwide in 2014 
Homicides were responsible for 518 deaths in 2015 (increase of 0.6% from 2014) 
Stillbirths: the UK’s stillbirth rate was 2.9 per 1,000 births in 2015 
The ripple effect
Due to the increasing number of sudden, traumatic deaths in the UK, there are also many families who suffer the grief and shock of a bereavement. The ripple effect can be huge, and extends from the closer family to friends, colleagues and into the wider community, including institutions such as schools.
Immediate concerns that families may experience following a sudden bereavement include:
Families in modern Britain
The basis and make-up of the modern family unit has changed drastically in the UK, further intensifying the impact of the ripple effect. The rise in number of step-families ensures that it is possible for two arms of a family to experience the grief of a bereavement, spreading shock and trauma.
Research has found that 42% of adults in the UK now have at least one step-relative. Furthermore, 30% of adults have a step or half-sibling, 18% have a living step-parent and 13% a step-child. There is very rarely just one family involved in the process, making the bereavement far more complicated.
What is the role of the lawyer?
The immediate concern of the lawyer is to get to the bottom of ‘who’s who’ in a family, which can be a very challenging process. Lawyers need to find out practical information through liaison with the family, which can be crucial in calculating what financial and emotional support can be provided. It can be very complicated to assess who within a family is legally entitled to support, and the role of a lawyer is to calculate this and ensure the family can get vital payments as soon as possible.
Financial compensation that is initially available
Unfortunately, the law can be very strict on who is able to receive financial compensation, and the amount of funding individuals are entitled to will vary from case to case. Issues can arise particularly in cases where partners are not married.
Under the terms of the 1976 ‘Fatal Accidents Act’, married partners and parents of children aged under 18 are eligible to receive a one off payment of £12,980 . Adult children, grandparents and other family members who may be dependents will not be entitled to this payment.
Other payments that may be available include the Bereavement Payment, a one off tax-free sum of £2,000, which married partners may be eligible for , and the Bereavement Allowance and Widowed Parent’s Allowance, a payment which is based on the amount a married partner provided in National Insurance contributions before their death. This allowance is provided for the same period that an individual is entitled to Child Benefit, and offers a maximum of £112.55 a week .
In contrast, the Scottish Damages Act, which was introduced in 2011, has no statutory limit for bereavement damages and does not limit claimants to parents or partners of the deceased . Financial arrangements become even more challenging in cases where the deceased does not have a will, and dies ‘intestate’. Writing a will provides legal officials with clear guidance of what the deceased individual would like to be arranged in relation to the future guardianship of their children, and financial arrangements.
When do lawyers get involved?
Whilst lawyers can get involved at any stage, it is recommended that legal advice is sought as soon as is possible, to ensure that help can be provided quickly and that details of a case are still fresh. Early legal intervention can help offer families with more options and choice, and can ease the process of accessing interim payments. Inflation in recent years has seen the price of an average funeral reach between £3,000 and £5,000; therefore, getting access to these payments can be essential.
Legal assistance can also provide support for other financial costs such as mortgage payments, if the family breadwinner has died. Lawyers can help with probate issues, and with challenges such as accessing bank accounts that may be difficult. Inquest representation can also be offered, and whilst this is not necessary, a lawyer may be able to help with restricting media intrusion. A civil claim can be brought against the person who was responsible, offering longer term financial and practical assistance. Perhaps most importantly, a lawyer can help a family get justice and answers.
What are the immediate concerns facing a family?
Case study one:
Serious road collision, which involved a 13 year old. Tragically, as the individual got off the school bus, they were hit by a car that was driving within the speed limit of the area, but had overtaken the bus. This incident was witnessed by a large number of school children, teachers and parents who were in the area, among whom included the individual’s mum, step-dad and brother. Whilst the step-father attempted immediate resuscitation, the individual died of their injuries at the scene.
What are the immediate concerns?
Lots of witnesses, including neighbours and close family friends of the family. The trauma was widespread through a tight-knit community. Extensive need for emotional support, particularly considering the young age of many of the witnesses.
Trauma spread through two families, with the step-father present at the scene of the death but father not.
Legally, whilst many people witnessed the collision, very few were entitled to compensation. Witnesses later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of what they had been exposed to, but would not have been eligible for funding to secure therapy and treatment for this.
A very difficult situation for the emergency services to respond to, and also challenging for Police Family Liaison Officers who were providing support to families after the event.
A claim was able to be made for the estate of the 13 year old, which was used to help cover the costs of a funeral.
Claims could also be made for the bereaved mother, step-father and brother who witnessed the collision, by virtue of their close ties of love and affection.
Case study two:
This incident also sadly involved a fatal road crash. A married female, aged 40, was driving on a dual carriageway, with her two young daughters in the car. Whilst driving, a farm vehicle which was towing a trailer pulled across her, leaving her nowhere to move. Tragically, the car collided with the farm vehicle, and the mother died of her injuries at the scene.
What are the immediate concerns?
Support for the bereaved children in the immediate aftermath. The father in this case worked in a different part of the country than the family home, and had to relocate to support his family.
Trauma experienced by the two surviving daughters.
Financial support for a family that lost both a breadwinner and someone who had responsibility for caring for children.
Every individual who experiences or is impacted by a traumatic incident will be affected by stress, and financial and family responsibilities can be particularly worrying. The symptoms experienced as a result of these pressures can have a very debilitating impact on suddenly bereaved people.
Commonly experienced symptoms can include:
Physical symptoms, including dizziness, headaches and loss of appetite, and weakened immune system which can increase a bereaved individual’s liability to illness.
Problems with concentration, memory and cognitive function that can appear similar to those that may be experienced following head trauma and brain injury.
The 2011 Louise Casey report also highlighted the challenge of substance misuse following a traumatic bereavement. Of those surveyed in the study, 5% of respondents and 8% of family members were reported to have suffered drug addiction following the bereavement, and 21% alcohol addiction. These levels are higher than those seen in the general population: drug addiction is around 3.4%, and alcohol dependency 6% .
Mental health problems are also common, particularly in those that have witnessed a traumatic incident. The 2011 Casey Report found that 80% of those surveyed had experienced trauma related symptoms and 75% depression . Until families know and trust a professional, they may not willingly divulge this very important information.
The average cost of a death in the UK is £37,000.
Intrusion from journalists can present a further challenge and difficulty to families, particularly if a case is high profile and the bereavement is put in the spotlight. During a trial, media interference can be very upsetting to individuals. However, using the media to promote a story or campaign can sometimes be beneficial to a grieving family, if they are able to control the message that is being broadcast.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites are having an increasingly challenging impact on legal cases. Finding out about a loved one’s death through the internet can be incredibly traumatic, especially in high profile cases where a large number of people have been impacted. Messages and inaccurate information can spread very quickly, with police family liaison officers increasingly under pressure to deliver news to families before they find out online. Challenges can also emerge further after the death, with issues arising around copyright, content ownership and potential abuse and misuse of social media accounts.
The civil system
Legal matters relating to the civil system run in a very different way to those in the criminal system, and different courts and burden of proof are used. Whilst the police and prosecutors must prove beyond all reasonable doubt that negligence occurred in a criminal court, in a civil court, a balance of probability is used, assessing all factors and possibilities. In most cases, the person who caused the collision will be insured, meaning that the insurance company will deal with the claim.
There is a generally a 3 year time limit from the date of an incident within which a claim must be notified to the court and formal proceedings commenced. In the case of children, the time limit does not start to run until their 18th birthday. This limit may also be extended if an incident led to serious disability and there are capacity issues. It is recommended that claimants seek legal advice as soon after an incident as is possible, whilst details are still fresh in their minds.
Legal professionals will have to prove that a defendant is culpable, whether this is an individual, group of people or an organisation. In the context of road crashes, if an individual is not insured, or is unable to be traced, then a claim can be made to the Motor Insurance Bureau. In the event of a criminal act, compensation can be sought through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA).
There are differences in the process of claiming through the civil court and CICA, and financial compensation from CICA may be significantly lower than that claimed through the civil route. Compensation sought from civil claims will seek to return a client to the position that they were in before the incident occurred as much as is possible. This can include covering a loss of income and support when a parent or carer has died.
Payments from CICA differ in that there is no obligation to provide this level of compensation, and financial support is often far more limited.
Support for families
Getting expert, specialist legal advice is essential. It is important to ensure that your legal representative has knowledge in the area required.
Signposting to charities can be very helpful. Many specialist organisations operate and complement the services provided by legal professionals and police family liaison officers. These can help to coordinate and link different forms of support.
Rehabilitation, for both physical and emotional trauma. Lawyers may be able to secure funding for private counselling and other support that may not be available through the NHS.
In England and Wales, there are limitations on who is able to make a fatal claim. Despite campaigns and recent challenges, married and unmarried couples do not receive the same rights under the law, regardless of how they may have cohabitated. Partners must also have lived together for at least two years to make a dependency claim. In England and Wales, parents can generally only make a claim following the death of their child if the child was under 18.
What can be awarded?
In fatal cases, a one off bereavement damage payment of £12,980 can be paid.
A dependency claim can also be made for any financial losses that arise from a relative being deceased.
Expenses for the funeral.
The cost of any care and future rehabilitation can also be covered.
The legal process can be very intrusive, particularly when assessing factors that are used to calculate the value of a payment. These can include:
Life expectancy of the deceased person and the surviving individual or spouse. This can be a very intrusive experience for families,as it will involve reviewing the individual’s medical notes and records.
The period of dependency may be adjusted by family background and educational success of any children – if a child is likely to attend sixth-form college and university, it will be extended.
Current economic climate.
The strength of the relationship, and other factors such as a divorce.
Pursuing a claim is not an easy choice, but the compensation can be essential. Lawyers will offer an initial consultation free of charge and without obligation.
Best practice guidance, and the golden rules
Be aware of any potential issues facing a family that they may not have told you about.
Do not make decisions on behalf of a family, but do support them and offer them advice where requested and suitable.
Find out what specialist organisations, charities and counselling groups are available, and signpost families to these at the earliest possible opportunity.
Initial legal advice will generally be free, and it is normally worth seeking the opinion of a specialist lawyer. A civil claim can help provide families with choices and give them financial security for the future.