Bereaved families launch campaign on legal aid for inquests

By agency reporter
February 27, 2019

Bereaved families and INQUEST have launched a campaign, Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests. This follows the decision by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to reject widely supported proposals and overwhelming evidence in favour of fair legal funding for bereaved people.

The campaign is calling for the government to reconsider this decision and urgently introduce automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to bereaved families following a state-related death. The detail of this proposal is outlined in a new briefing by INQUEST. 

The launch event in parliament was chaired by the Rt Rev James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, whose report on the experiences of Hillsborough families is among the numerous supportive independent reviews.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “The power imbalance between bereaved families and the state is the most significant injustice of the coronial process. Removing the barriers to accessing legal representation will not only create a fairer and more just inquest system, it will protect lives.

"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 Ministry of Justice have disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families.

"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 this unequal playing field.

Currently, state bodies involved in a death have immediate and unlimited access to the best legal teams and experts, at public expense. In contrast bereaved families, who come to these processes through no fault of their own, do not.

Some bereaved people are granted legal aid after going through long and complicated processes. Many get nothing or are required to pay large contributions towards legal costs. Others have no choice but to represent themselves in complicated legal hearings, or resort to crowdfunding.

The renewed focus from the 2017 reports of the independent review of Deaths and serious incidents in police custody by Dame Elish Angiolini QC and the Bishop’s review on Hillsborough led the MOJ to launch a review of legal aid for inquests, which was published earlier this month.

INQUEST says there is overwhelming evidence in support of legal aid for inquests where the state is represented, where the wider circumstances of a death must be investigated under human rights law (Article 2), or where there is a wider public interest case to be made. Despite this, the MOJ rejected the proposal.

The Rt Rev James Jones, who supports the campaign, said: "Bereaved families are entitled to have the legal help they need to discover the truth of what happened to their loved ones. 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."

Sara Ryan, whose 18 year old son Connor Sparrowhawk died a preventable death in the care of Southern Health, was among the families speaking at the event. She said: We were told we didn’t need legal representation because inquests are ‘inquisitorial’ hearings. 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.   

The campaign is supported by a range of organisations including Liberty, MIND, The Runnymede Trust, The Bar Council, Legal Action Group, and Cruse Bereavement Care, among others.

The campaign Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests is calling for:

  • Automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.
  • Funding equivalent to that enjoyed by state bodies/public authorities and corporate bodies represented.

* Read the Briefing Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests here

* Campaign https://www.inquest.org.uk/legal-aid-for-inquests

* INQUEST https://www.inquest.org.uk/

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