King County Council approves legal assistance for families during inquest process

King County’s inquest process for when an individual is killed by law enforcement can be difficult for the families left behind that are unable to afford legal representation.

The Metropolitan King County Council on Monday (Jan. 29) provided assistance to those families by unanimously requiring the County to provide legal representation through the County’s Department of Public Defense during the inquest process.

“Today we heard intensely personal and heartbreaking stories from family members, and this is simply the right thing to do,” said Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the prime sponsor of the legislation. “An inquest searches for the facts, and allowing legal questions from a perspective other than law enforcement’s ensures everything is brought to light, levels the playing field, and provides critical assistance to families deeper in grief than in legal know-how.”

“There are few legal situations more complex, sensitive, and challenging than the inquest process,” said Council Vice Rod Dembowski. “While families are still grieving from the loss of their loved one, the last thing they should need to worry about is how to afford a lawyer to represent their needs and navigate them through the inquest process. Affording families legal representation will be a modest cost to the County, yet make a dramatic impact on how our neighbors experience a very difficult situation.”

In King County, the Executive has the authority to conduct an inquest into the causes and circumstances of any death involving a member of any law enforcement agency within King County while in the performance of his or her duties.

Many of the procedures involved in the inquest process, including participating in the pre-inquest hearings, engaging in discovery or examining witnesses at the inquest, can only be done by legal counsel representing the family.

“It’s important that families going through this traumatic process have access to legal representation,” said Councilmember Dave Upthegrove. “Inquests provide transparency, and this legislation will both increase access and remove the financial barriers that many families experience in their rightful quest to get justice.”

“For far too long grieving families who cannot afford to pay for an attorney have had to navigate what can be an incomprehensible system with no legal assistance. Already traumatized by the untimely, sometimes questionable death of their loved ones, these families have been the only group in the inquest process largely without legal representation or assistance, often re-traumatizing the families of the decedents, as well as the communities they’re from,” said Councilmember Larry Gossett. “This legislation ensures that these families now have a guide in this process, which is a step in protecting them and making sure their voices are heard during the inquest.”

According to data collected by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, between 2012 and 2016, there have been 34 deaths involving a member of a law enforcement agency that resulted in an inquest. Of those 34 inquests, 12 families obtained either privately retained or pro-bono legal counsel. Washington law does not require the appointment of a publicly funded attorney to represent indigent individuals at an inquest.

Today’s adopted ordinance will require the King County Department of Public Defense to represent the families of the decedents during the inquest process at public expense. Public Defense will absorb the cost of these cases within its existing budget. Families would be able to decline representation if the family does not wish to be represented by the department’s attorney.