“It is still possible to lose a deceased loved one within the system simply because you do not fit the definition of ‘kin’.”
Family: a group of people affiliated by consanguinity (by recognised birth), affinity (by marriage) or co-residence/shared consumption (nurture, kinship).
Some months ago, a much-loved old friend of mine died. He was a gay man who lived alone. He was fit and well, and his death was sudden and unexpected. A stickler for punctuality and reliability, his non-attendance at an appointment raised the alarm. On entering his flat, the friend who held his spare keys found him on his bed, dressed, as if resting before leaving for work.
The 999 call brought the police and ambulance. Asked who he was, the keyholder said he was a friend and that there was no family. Through that simple interaction, he became a ‘non-person’. No information was provided to him, he was not told what would happen next, nor was he given a CAD (computer-aided dispatch) reference. Instead, he was told that the flat was a crime scene and asked to hand over the keys.
What followed reminded me of a time not so long ago when gay men who died were spirited away without so much as a ‘by your leave’ to the partners and friends who were not recognised as family/kin. At a time when legal and social definitions of ‘family’ are widening, it is difficult to conceive that it is still possible to lose a loved one within the system simply because you do not fit the definition of ‘kin’.
As one of my areas of practice is inquest law, it fell to me to enquire as to his whereabouts. I immediately came up against the kinship issue and, had I not understood the system, I doubt I would have made any headway. Even knowing it, it was hard not to be put off.
It fell to me to enquire as to my friend’s whereabouts. Had I not understood the system, I doubt I would have made any headway.
Once I had ascertained the public mortuary to which he had been taken, I made enquiries of the coroner on behalf of our small group of friends (of course, declaring my personal interest). Some days later, I was able to speak with the coroner’s officer and explained that we were, in effect, the deceased’s family and wanted to be recognised as such. It took further representations for us to be acknowledged as kin to whom he could be released and several days before we were permitted to take charge of his body and register his death. The story didn’t end there. Next came the property battle.
In the absence of someone considered to be the next of kin, the police were unwilling to release the keys to us. They had secured the flat and retained the keys, and that was that. What followed was a protracted period of delay: although the officer in charge agreed to release the property (encouraged, no doubt, by the mention of a potential complaint), the property office would not budge. In the end, it boiled down to this: the property office needed written authority from the officer in charge. The officer could only be contacted by email. He only had access to email when he was in the office, which, being a beat officer, was hardly ever.
Our experience is, I believe, being replicated up and down the country. When we couldn’t find our friend, I seriously thought I might have to apply for habeas corpus and (in relation to the property) make a formal complaint or threaten legal action.
We were finally able to provide our friend with a funeral befitting the privacy and dignity he had maintained throughout his life, directed, managed and attended by his family – us, his friends. The moral of the tale is that institutions still struggle with families that aren’t ‘kin’. So if you aren’t in that happy (or unhappy) socially organised structure and you want your friends to be your kin, make a living will and a will, make your intentions and wishes clear, and don’t leave it to chance.
* ‘My Living Will – a new website to help make end of life decisions’ will be published in May 2016 Legal Action.

About the author(s)

Description: Marcia Willis Stewart
Marcia Willis Stewart QC (Hon) is a partner at Birnberg Peirce. Photo by Sarah Booker.