Campaigners are renewing calls for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to bereaved families following a state-related death. This follows the decision by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to reject widely supported proposals in its final report into funding for inquests.
The new campaign led by INQUEST – Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests – is calling for the government to ‘level the playing field’. ‘Removing the barriers to accessing legal representation will not only create a fairer and more just inquest system, it will protect lives,’commented Deborah Coles, director of INQUEST. ‘Every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed. Yet the MoJ have disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families.’
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An event in parliament will be chaired by the Rt. Rev James Jones, the former Bishop of Liverpool, whose report on the experiences of Hillsborough families is among the numerous supportive independent reviews.
‘Bereaved families are entitled to have the legal help they need to discover the truth of what happened to their loved ones,’ Rev Jones said. ‘Finding themselves without that help and outgunned by lawyers representing public bodies is wholly unacceptable. It is an offence to natural justice and a solution must now be found.’
An independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody by Dame Elish Angiolini QC and Bishop’s review on Hillsborough published in 2017 have led the renewed focus by the MOJ into legal aid for inquests. One of the aims of the review was to ensure that bereaved families were properly supported and able to participate in the inquest process.
As things stand, state bodies involved in a death will have immediate and unlimited access to the best legal teams and experts, at public expense. By contrast, the families of the person that has died, who do not chose to be involved in such proceedings, have to pay to get anywhere near the same level of support.
The process for bereaved families to be granted legal aid is lengthy and difficult to navigate. It is only available through the legal aid’s safety net ‘exceptional case funding’ scheme. Whilst some will get access, many do not and others have to pay large sums back.
Sara Ryan, whose 18 year old son Connor Sparrowhawk died a preventable death in the care of Southern Health, will be amongst the families speaking at the event today. ‘We were told we didn’t need legal representation because inquests are “inquisitorial” hearings,’ Ryan said. ‘This couldn’t have been further from the truth. The coronial process is an intricate, law-drenched and adversarial journey in which families without expert legal representation are too easily silenced. From the moment Connor died, it felt like a well-oiled state machine was cementing a wall of denial.’
Deborah Coles stressed that the group would not give up their fight to achieve equality of arms in inquests: ‘INQUEST and the families we work with refuse to be silenced. We call on the government to act now and urgently introduce fair public funding for legal representation at inquests, to end to this unequal playing field.’
The campaign is well supported by a range of organisations which include Liberty, MIND, The Runnymede Trust, The Bar Council, Legal Action Group, and Cruse Bereavement Care, among others.