“A bereaved woman was asked to pay more than £1,000 for the use of a room at an inquest this week into her mother’s death.
Christie Dyball is due to attend a three-day hearing at Reading town hall and requested a family room – a private space away from the courtroom – which is a standard facility at most coroners’ courts.
The inquest into the death of her mother, Anne Roberts, 68, who was detained in hospital, starts on Tuesday and will be held before a jury.
Dyball was initially told the cost of the room would be more than £1,000. After protests from her solicitor, Merry Varney, the sum was reduced to £324.
Inquests in Reading are held in the town council building because there is no dedicated coroner’s court in the area.
Dyball said: “It was a huge surprise. It’s disgraceful. What do they expect us to do? Huddle in a public corridor and discuss behind our hands with our lawyers? How can we express our feelings in private?
“It’s a shame that the council would rather keep the room empty than let us use it. It’s been a real disappointment and added to the stress. I have had to pay the £324 in advance or else lose the room.”
Dyball, who lives in north Norfolk, sought the help of her local MP, Norman Lamb, to obtain legal aid to ensure she was represented at the hearing. The Legal Aid Agency declined to pay for the family room.
Varney, a solicitor at the law firm Leigh Day, said: “This is ridiculous for such a charge to be made against a bereaved family who are there through no fault of their own.
“The response from the town hall was that it’s a commercial venture and that’s why they have to charge. It is totally unreasonable for a bereaved family member to pay a fee for a facility offered routinely to other bereaved families up and down the country when attending a loved one’s inquest.”
Inquest, the organisation that supports relatives at coroners’ courts, condemned the demand. Selen Cavcav, a caseworker, said: “Bereaved families must be at the centre of the inquest process. This cannot be achieved when they are forced to pay for a basic requirement.
“When families are expected to sit next to those who may have been involved in the care of their relative, their trauma is only exacerbated. It is essential for the family to have a private space where they can go during distressing periods and to speak to their legal representatives in confidence.”
Reading borough council said: “Family rooms are not generally requested at inquests, but where they are there is a standard charge.
“We aim to provide a sensitive service for the bereaved and we intend to do everything we can to assist the family to find an area where they can have some privacy during what will no doubt be a very difficult time, but we cannot always guarantee to have rooms routinely available. In this instance the family were given a discretionary discount on the hire of the room.”