England

Bristol university student death: Parents call for legal aid review

Margaret and Robert Abrahart
Image caption Margaret and Robert Abrahart said the inquest was crucial to getting answers around their daughter's death

The parents of a student who took her own life have backed a national campaign calling for legal aid for bereaved families to be reformed.

Natasha Abrahart, 20, was studying physics at the University of Bristol when she died on 30 April 2018.

Robert and Margaret Abrahart have used their savings and face a "horrendous" bill of £70,000 for her inquest because they cannot get legal aid funding.

The couple have raised £20,000 through crowdfunding for the inquest in May.

A pre-inquest review panel heard Natasha had told the university, a student GP and the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Trust she was suicidal months before her death.

She is one of 12 Bristol students who are believed to have taken their own life since October 2016.

Image copyright Abrahart family
Image caption University staff knew Natasha Abrahart was "in crisis", a pre-inquest review heard

Mrs Abrahart believes the inquest is "important" to ensure changes are made at the university.

She said: "What keeps me going is the vision of another family experiencing what we experienced.

"And if that can be prevented then it has to be worth doing."

Some families are currently granted legal aid for inquest hearings, while others crowdfund or pay their own costs and represent themselves.

Mr and Mrs Abrahart, from West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, said the process was not a "level playing field", as the university and the mental health trust have their own legal teams.

"If you want to get answers you need legal help," said Mr Abrahart.

"We either do nothing and go through the rest of our life with unanswered questions, with systems that may have problems and are never fixed, or try and do it on our own.

"If you don't have a full and proper inquest you're never going to get to the bottom of things."

Image copyright Abrahart family
Image caption Natasha's parents have used their savings to pay for specialist lawyers to "thoroughly investigate" her death

The couple joined charity INQUEST in Parliament on Tuesday to call for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following a state-related death.

Deborah Coles, from the charity, said: "The power imbalance between bereaved families and the state is the most significant injustice of the coronial process.

"Removing the barriers to accessing legal representation will not only create a fairer and more just inquest system, it will protect lives."

A University of Bristol spokesman said: "The evidence submitted in advance of today's pre-inquest review shows that every effort was made to assist and support Natasha, both from within her school and by the university's pastoral support services.

"We are committed to fully assisting the coroner with her investigation into Natasha's death and to ensure any lessons learnt are built into the support we provide our students."

The hearing was chaired by Rt. Rev James Jones, whose report on the experiences of Hillsborough families is among the numerous supportive independent reviews.

Other bereaved relatives also spoke about their experiences of inquests, while justice minister Lucy Fraser refused to take questions on why the government had declined legal aid funding for inquests.

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