Support after Shipman: the role of Victim Support and the Witness Service - Background

Throughout the legal procedures that occurred in connection with the Harold Shipman case, the bereaved were offered help by Tameside Victim Support and Preston Crown Court Witness Service. The eventual extent of their work with the bereaved proved to be much wider than anyone could have known, and subsequently involved Victim Support volunteers from other Greater Manchester Schemes and Witness Service volunteers from Lancaster Crown Court.

Tameside Victim Support dealt with 94 referrals involving 308 people by the end of the court proceedings in January 2000. However, as further investigations have revealed more suspicious deaths, this number continues to grow, and the work has the added complication that, for legal reasons, it is unlikely that Shipman will stand trial for any of those deaths. Some of the bereaved families from the trial still need help, and the ongoing investigations affect them as well as those waiting to hear the outcome of further police enquiries. Continuing press interest has meant that the families of the original 15 victims are finding it difficult to have a sense of completion. Those other families who know that Shipman has been named as killer of their family member are equally frustrated. As one family member said:

"...It was felt that even though there was more than enough evidence for a further 23 cases of murder to take the matters to trial, a fair trial could not be guaranteed after all the publicity. This news came as a terrible blow. I needed Shipman to be tried and sentenced for the murder of my mother, to make me feel that justice had been served..."

The Witness Service at Preston Crown Court became involved following the arrest, charge, and setting of the date and place of hearing of the case. In all they helped 300 witnesses through the difficult days of the trial and also arranged pre-trial familiarisation visits for most of the families.

Leading factors

It was in late summer 1998 that news began to filter out that a respected Tameside GP, Harold Shipman, was under investigation regarding the suspicious death of a patient. The patient's family suspected that she had not died naturally and went to the police, whose investigations then began to uncover facts about other patients. The end result was a prosecution in Preston Crown Court where Harold Shipman was accused of murdering 15 patients. It should be said that these cases were not the total of the suspicious deaths investigated, and at the time of writing, over 400 deaths are still being investigated and are the subject of the public inquiry noted earlier.

Families who are bereaved through murder clearly need to be helped to understand and cope with procedures that are basically out of their control. During a time of personal distress, the added feature of the public nature of the investigation, arrest and trial, serves to increase the burdens that the bereaved bear. In this case there were further dimensions. The murder had been committed by a trusted family doctor - one that had been seen as a caring and "good" doctor. In addition, the normal grief processes were completed, or underway, for many people and so there was the added shock that something thought to be understood and dealt with was now obviously incorrect. The need for exhumations increased people's anxieties about the investigation into the deaths. Even though the exhumations took place at 3am, the press were there and photographs appeared in the morning newspapers. Contact with Victim Support and the Witness Service became central for the families involved during their struggle to cope in these extraordinary circumstances, and the help given was both practical and emotional.

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