Campaigners are going to court to try to force the government into a decision on the status of a mental health deaths inquiry.
In March, the inquiry’s chair asked the health secretary for extra powers to compel witnesses to give evidence.
Bereaved families have applied for a judicial review into whether the long wait for a response is lawful.
The Department of Health and Social Care said it was considering the inquiry’s next steps.
The Essex Mental Health Inquiry was set up in 2021 to investigate the deaths of people in the care of the county’s mental health services over the past two decades.
Chair Dr Geraldine Strathdee has expressed frustration at the lack of witnesses who have come forward, particularly former and current staff members at the NHS trusts concerned.
She recently published a second letter to Health Secretary Steve Barclay calling for her inquiry to be granted statutory powers and warned of fresh safety concerns.
The inquiry said it had become aware of about 2,000 deaths of people who were in the care of Essex Partnership University Trust (EPUT) and its predecessor organisations over a 21-year period.
This figure has been disputed by the trust’s current chief executive, Paul Scott.
‘Hurt and frustrated’
In a letter seen by the BBC, lawyers acting for some of the families of the deceased said the lack of response to Dr Strathdee was an “intolerable situation”.
The decision to seek a judicial review, they said, was because they were “not prepared to wait any longer”.
Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died while an inpatient at the Linden Centre in Chelmsford in 2012, said she and other families were “hurt and frustrated by the government’s lack of action and Mr Barclay’s silence”.
“Patients are still dying and we’ve been waiting months now for a conversion of the current toothless inquiry,” she said.
“We just cannot understand why it is taking so long to announce the next step in getting the desperately needed statutory public inquiry into Essex mental health services urgently under way.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every death in a mental health facility is a tragedy. We’re improving mental health services across the country and that’s why we launched the inquiry to look at inpatient mental health deaths in Essex between 2000 and 2020.
“We’re grateful to all those who have participated in the inquiry to help improve patient safety. It’s disappointing, however, that some current and former staff have not engaged to the extent expected and the inquiry hasn’t been able to access all the information it has requested.
“We are carefully considering the inquiry’s next steps and will update in due course.”