The government could be held liable for a gambling addict’s suicide after a coroner ruled that his inquest could consider whether the state failed in its duty to protect him.
Lawyers for Jack Ritchie’s parents, Charles and Liz, who founded the Gambling with Lives charity after their son’s death in 2017, successfully argued that the inquest should engage article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which concerns the right to life.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) fought against the use of article 2, which is typically applied in cases where the state fails to protect the deceased person from risk, such as deaths in police custody.
The ruling by Christopher Dorries, the coroner for South Yorkshire West, means the Ritchies’ lawyers can seek an inquest verdict that blames the government for not providing proper medical care for addicts or sufficient information about the dangers of gambling.
“The arguable case here is that the state had not provided the opportunity of meaningful medical or psychiatric treatment,” he said. “In other words, it is arguable that there was a systemic dysfunction in the lack of such provision.”
Dorries also pointed to “the apparent lack of information that might assist families or others to save their loved ones”.
The Ritchies’ lawyers are expected to argue that lobbying by the gambling industry may have been instrumental in preventing tighter regulation. A date for the inquest has not yet been set.
The family are not seeking financial compensation from the government, but a finding in their favour at the inquest could trigger claims from relatives of other people who took their own lives after struggling with a gambling addiction. It could also force the government to strengthen gambling regulations rather than leave itself open to further liability.
A spokesperson for the Ritchies told the Guardian: “Charles and Liz are pleased that the failure of the state to protect their son’s life will now come under intensive scrutiny and welcome the potential of this inquest to save many lives in the future.
“There is evidence of a long-established and understood link between gambling addiction and suicide, of which the state was aware prior to Jack’s death. There is evidence that Jack took his own life due to the longstanding gambling disorder from which he suffered.”
The Ritchies have previously told of how their son’s gambling addiction began with lunchtime visits to play on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in bookmakers’ shops while he was still at school.
He took his own life in November 2017, aged 24, in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he had been teaching English as a foreign language.
The spokesperson said there was evidence that the state had “failed, over many years, to regulate the dangerous activity of gambling adequately”, particularly with regard to FOBTs.
Maximum stakes on these machines were cut from £100 to £2 this year after the government acknowledged they were a “social blight”, after a long-running campaign against them.
The spokesperson said the government had failed to provide adequate information to gamblers and those who cared for them and had also neglected to provide sufficient treatment for sufferers. He said this may have been the result of “lobbying by the gambling industry”.
A government spokesperson said: “We are currently considering the decision and cannot comment further at this time.”
In his ruling, Dorries said he was “deeply cautious of the inquest appearing to become involved in the political aspects of safeguarding potential problem gamblers, for it cannot and must not do so.”
But there could be significant ramifications for gambling regulation if the inquest determines that the state was partly to blame. Any verdict that finds that the public is not receiving sufficient warnings about the dangers of gambling could force the government to impose smoking-style warnings on gambling products.
Measures are already being developed to improve the treatment opportunities on offer to addicts. The first of 14 planned specialist gambling addiction NHS clinics is due to open shortly.
There are 55,000 children classed as having a gambling problem in Britain, according to the Gambling Commission, which also found that 450,000 were gambling regularly – more than the number who said they had taken drugs, drunk alcohol or smoked.
Recent studies have drawn links between gambling addiction and increase likelihood of suicide.