Medical injury lawyer reflects on decade of working on mental health tragedies

Medical injury lawyer Sharon Allison

Medical injury lawyer Sharon Allison - Credit: Archant

Medical injury lawyer Sharon Allison has spent 10 years working on cases linked to the tragic consequences of mental ill health in Norfolk and Suffolk. Today, she speaks to Andrew Hirst about some of the issues she has witnessed.

Matthew Dunham jumped to his death from the Castle Mall shopping centre in Norwich. Photo: Supplied

Matthew Dunham jumped to his death from the Castle Mall shopping centre in Norwich. Photo: Supplied - Credit: Supplied

She has represented dozens of families seeking justice for loved ones lost due to mental health care failings.

But while the cases won may help clients come to terms with their tragedy, medical injury lawyer Sharon Allison says there is an all too familiar pattern of mistakes, which has made her question whether lessons are truly learned by those in charge.

'It's always the same themes,' she said. 'Under-investment, a lack of resources, no availability.

'It's the same trusts, with the same issues happening time and time again. All that changes is that it's happening to different families.

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'It's just depressing.'

Mrs Allison, who lives in Lakenheath and works from Ashton KCJ's Thetford offices, says her caseload increased in recent years as the cuts affecting mental health care providers took hold, with it peaking around two years ago.

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This is also around the time when the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT), the region's main provider of mental health services, went through a controversial restructure.

Much of her work is with families whose loved ones have committed suicide, often after being released from a facility to be cared for in the community.

One high-profile case she covered recently involved the tragic death of 19-year-old Joe Ruler, who hanged himself in August 2010 at the Wedgewood Unit run by NSFT in Bury St Edmunds. An inquest in 2014 heard how ligature risks posed by the en suite rooms had been known for several years, but not acted upon. It also heard how medics had felt Mr Ruler had suffered from a 'personality disorder' – rather than a formal mental illness. The NSFT says it took action after an independent review into the death, resulting in a refurbishment of the inpatient ward to reduce ligature risks.

Another case covered by Ashton KCJ involved the family of Matthew Dunham, 25, who was suffering depression when he jumped to his death from Castle Mall in Norwich on May 9, 2013. His family and the NSFT settled a five-figure claim out of court last year, after the trust admitted failures 'materially contributed to the deceased taking his own life'.

Mrs Allison says cases involving failures at trusts had become depressingly commonplace.

'There's a huge lack of resources and it's become a massive problem,' she said. 'Ultimately, the staff cannot cope. Years ago we had far more beds, but they've gone now.

'Often there are crisis teams with untrained staff and it means there's not a proper appreciation of risk.

'That's what's happening in most of these cases. Someone who needed to be detained for their own safety has been deemed to be fit to be cared for in the community and their support is said to have been adequate when actually it's not.'

The lawyer praised the work of staff, who are up against a difficult system, but she is scathing when it comes to the standard of internal investigations, which she claims is part of the problem.

In one case relating to the suicide of a Cambridge University student, she claims the health trust's internal investigation said it had followed procedures, even though an independent investigation went on to make more than 40 recommendations for change.

'That gives you a feel for how these trusts investigate internally,' she said. 'If they are going to investigate there's no point in not doing it properly, because there is no greater price to pay than the loss of someone's life.

'These internal reports are just like a circular argument. They go round and round and nothing changes. Until the circle is broken by someone fully independent who can provide constructive feedback that they can work with, nothing will change.'

Although the volume of work has risen, Mrs Allison says there are likely to be far more families who, understandably, choose not to take legal action, despite their concerns over the death of a loved one.

'There's no amount of money that will bring someone back,' she said. 'And there's nothing more depressing than getting someone the piffling sum of £15,000 for the death of their loved one. I know full well that's not what the family want.

'They don't want another family to feel the raw pain that they are feeling and I understand that entirely.'

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