Justice for James: re-opening the Inquest into the death of James Markham

markhaminquest3If you have lost someone you love, and do not think the Inquest held and subsequent death certificate issued are a true reflection of what happened, this story will show that an Inquest can be overturned, without massive cost or legal knowledge.

When our son James collapsed and died outside the family home in November 2001, we were all shocked. Like many victims of young sudden cardiac death he was seemingly fit and healthy and just 21 years of age.

Our family GP gave the initial lead when he told us that the case sounded like a cardiac arrhythmia. That was something that we had not heard of, but in searching the internet we found CRY.

Alison Cox put us in touch with the then Dr Sharma, and Dr Sharma told us he thought James had died of long QT syndrome.

Initial cardiac testing of family members did not show anything abnormal, but it was agreed to closely monitor our daughter, Abi.

The original Inquest came and went and we do not remember much about it. I think at the time we were just numb and worried about our surviving daughter. The Inquest recorded a verdict of “Unascertained” and “Natural Causes”.

It was not until a few years later that we started to question this. By now were starting to function a little more clearly and were getting expert advice and information from CRY. We believed that fit and healthy young people do not just collapse and die without good reason, and vowed to find out what had really happened to James.

markhaminquest1We were fortunate in knowing Professor Winters, a geneticist, and he agreed to have James’ blood DNA tested. We understood at the time that this was not available through the NHS in England and so the samples were sent off to Denmark. It took three years to get the results back to the UK and during this time Professor Winters passed away.

James’ case was taken up by another geneticist, Doctor Rosser, and she concluded that the results of the DNA testing clearly showed that James had died of long QT syndrome. This proved that Dr Sharma’s original diagnosis was correct.

This information allowed family members to be DNA tested, and by now – 2006 – testing was available through the NHS in England. A couple of months later we had found that no other family members carried the gene responsible for James’ death.

We were pleased to know our surviving daughter was not at risk, and also thought we had sufficient information to take to our Coroner to have James’ Death Certificate changed.

Our Coroner, Alison M Thompson MBE, was extremely helpful. She told us that if she were able then, based on the new evidence, she would re-open the Inquest.

Unfortunately the law did not allow her to do so. This was a disappointment to us, and we left the case until early in 2012 when we decided to have one more attempt at getting the Inquest overturned.

Initially we wrote to our MP, Nick Hurd, giving him all the case details. He was sympathetic and suggested we write to The Attorney General’s Office. We did this and were advised by his office to make a formal application to The High Court to have the original Inquest overturned.

At this stage we took some legal advice and saw a local solicitor. He was frank in saying that he had not come across this sort of case before, but thought that – based on the firm DNA evidence – we had a good case. He advised us that should we wish, we could represent ourselves in court. This turned out to be good advice, saving us lots of money. It also transpired that throughout the process, many of the people within the legal system said that they had not come across this sort of case before.

There follows a brief rundown of the process we went through:

Evidence: This seemed to be the critical area. Our original Death Certificate had “Unascertained” and “Unknown Natural Causes”. In getting our case to court we had DNA evidence from James’ blood plus covering correspondence from a geneticist to say the death was a result of long QT.

Time scale: Although we had had several abortive attempts to get this underway – and there was some correspondence with our MP that would not be needed in subsequent cases – the final process took about eight months. That is from the time of the first correspondence to The Attorney General; through submission of evidence, attending the High Court and the fresh Inquest; to receiving the new Death Certificate.

Financial cost: At the outset of the process the initial advice from the local solicitor cost £50. There was the actual cost of taking the Court action, which was £465 plus the cost of photocopies (about £50). At the time, legal aid would have been available if annual income was below about £22,000.

Time needed: I did not keep a record of how much actual time I spent on the case, and there were periods of little or no activity where the “process” was grinding along. However, there were two trips to The High Court in London – one to submit the papers and one for the actual hearing. There was also a trip to our Coroner’s Office to serve the papers – I could have done this by post, but wanted to ensure she got the papers, and also ask a few questions.

Skills: I had no previous legal experience, and based on our experience I do not think it necessary to employ a solicitor and certainly not a barrister. The Attorney General’s Office had a legal advisor and I found him very helpful in giving a broad overview of the process and a guide of their website and the paperwork involved. We also found out on the day of the Hearing that we may have been able to secure advice from volunteers based at the actual Courts.

Court proceedings: My concerns were that the actual court proceedings would be stressful – fortunately these were completely unfounded. We arrived in court with a pre-prepared statement that I thought I would need to read it out. However, when the two trial Judges entered the court, one of them told us straight away that our case had been considered in chambers and that the judgement was in a our favour. We then relaxed and listened to the reading of the actual Judgement; and the whole procedure took less than half an hour. Within another month we had our fresh Inquest, and the new Death Certificate was issued a couple of weeks later.

In conclusion I think the effort was worthwhile and that the process was quicker and smoother than I thought it would be. We were fortunate to have a very supportive Coroner and all the people we dealt with throughout the process were extremely helpful.

I believe that the record is now straight. We do know what happened to James and this is reflected in the legal judgement. The Chief Coroner was one of the trial judges and in his judgement he went on to say that he was in the process of drawing up new guidelines for all Coroners in England and Wales.

My wife Sandra thinks that doing what I did was also to keep James’ memory alive and keep him fresh in our thoughts. That is probably true.

I hope this judgement will be a landmark in allowing other families that feel the same way as us to take the same action. However, I also hope that the advancement in medical science and testing means there will be less cases of “Unascertained Natural Causes”

markhaminquest2We have kept all the necessary documentation and are happy to pass them on to other families, along with any advice that we can offer. If you would like more information please contact cry@c-r-y.org.uk and mark your email ‘FOR THE ATTENTION OF JEFF MARKHAM’ and CRY will forward me your message.

Jeff Markham