Bereaved Harpenden and St Albans families join campaign to improve our coroners service

TWO families with contrasting experiences of the coroners service are supporting a charity’s national campaign to raise standards.

The Turberville family from Harpenden and the Merchant family from St Albans, who have both lost children to sudden death syndrome, have joined forces with Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY) to press for the appointment of a chief coroner to oversee the process nationwide.

The idea to create the role within its own department was the centrepiece of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 but the proposal was abolished as the coalition government sought to cut the number of quangos.

The House of Lords, however, overturned the decision and a new bill including the preservation of the chief coroner will go back to Parliament in the spring, but CRY fear it will fail unless there is a groundswell of opinion to encourage MPs to show their support.

So the charity and the two local families are urging people to support the changes by signing a petition which needs more than 500,000 signatures.

Dennis and Barbara Merchant, from Jersey Farm, lost their son Ian, a trainee accountant who had recently graduated, to an undiagnosed heart condition in 1995.

The 22-year-old, who had not shown any signs of illness, collapsed and died at work in London and the death was referred to a coroner there.

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But his parents had to wait three agonising months for the coroner to attribute his death to cardiac conduction abnormality, a term which encompasses a range of conditions.

Mrs Merchant said: “It wasn’t a very good experience. We were asked by the coroner if Ian was on drugs, which is a bit insensitive. You just can’t cope with those sorts of questions at such a time. There could have been more sensitivity in the process.”

Still unsatisfied with the outcome, the following year Mr and Mrs Merchant turned to CRY who helped them research the various possible causes of Ian’s death and they found that a rare genetic condition known as Wolff-Parkinson Whyte Syndrome, which their daughter could have also been at risk of, seemed the most likely.

But Chris and Katy Turberville’s experience in Herts couldn’t have been more different after the sudden death of their active daughter Hannah, aged seven and a half, while on holiday in France in February 2007.

Herts coroner Edward Thomas immediately sent Hannah’s heart to a top expert for examination which ensured that the family was given a cause of death within two weeks and liaison continued until after her inquest.

Mrs Turberville said: “Edward Thomas was kind, courteous, professional and caring all the way through but when you talk to other parents within the CRY network you hear terrible stories about the coroners service and I can’t imagine how awful that must feel.

“No-one can understand the pain and total devastation of losing a child or partner at a young age suddenly and without warning. Although the days and months that follow are often a ‘blur’, you still want answers and you want them fast.

“Thankfully, the majority of families are treated with great sensitivity – but, sadly for some, the experience has been appalling.

“Many have had to wait months, or even years to find out a cause of death and their concerns have been treated with little respect.”

She added: “We deserve a coroners service to help us understand the cause of death of the person who has died. Families – like us – must be kept informed and consulted and their feelings, wishes and expectations must be listened to.”

Mrs Turberville believes that having a chief coroner to enforce national standards would bring other services across the country up to scratch and ensure that families get answers quickly, which is of paramount importance if relatives are at risk of the same condition.

To sign the petition, which will be hand delivered to Downing Street on March 3, visit