THE family of a dad who died in police custody has welcomed the launch of a support project for bereaved relatives as they face inquest hearings.
The Coroner’s Support Service for County Durham and Darlington is one of the first in the country to provide help for families as they hear about the last hours of their loved ones’ lives.
The pilot scheme run by Victim Support has helped more than 100 family members and witnesses in its first month, with HM Senior Coroner for County Durham and Darlington, Andrew Tweddle, praising the move.
The project, was set up by Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg following the lack of support provided to a family of a prisoner who had died in custody.
It has been backed by the family of Lenny McCourt, 44, of Ash Crescent, Parkside, Seaham, who died of heart problems on the way to cells in Peterlee in September 2010, after he was pepper sprayed twice following his arrest.
Tracey McCourt, Lenny’s sister-in-law, represented the family at the hearings because they were not then entitled to Legal Aid and said she would have been at a loss if it had not been for the help of the coroner’s officer.
Tracey raised the lack of support during the inquest with Mr Hogg and Chief Constable Mike Barton at a meeting to discuss officers’ conduct. She said they also felt let down by the police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service.
She said: “We had no idea how the system works, we didn’t have a clue, we had never been to an inquest before.
“If it had not been for Mr Tweddle’s assistant, who was brilliant and I couldn’t praise him enough, we had a really good relationship, but not everyone has that. This will be for anyone who needs help. It’s something which should have been in place years ago.”
On average, the Durham Coroner will hold in the region of 400 inquests a year which can vary in length and the number of witnesses called to give evidence.
Mr Hogg will visit the court at Crook Civic tomorrow to hear of volunteers’ experiences first hand.
He said: “Attending an inquest is very distressing for families and it’s vital they get every bit of help they need to get through the experience.
“The workload of the coroner and the coroner’s officers is vast and varied and I know the service is helping take some of the pressures off them.”