Partner - Injury
The issue of public funding for legal representation at inquests has been in the news a lot recently. Legal Aid funding is not automatically granted at inquests except in ‘exceptional circumstances’. Legal aid guidelines say that funding for a family at an inquest requires there to be a ‘wider interest’. The family of teenager, Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing material about suicide and self-harm on social media was initially refused funding to pay for legal advice at her inquest. It is understood that one of the reasons given by the Legal Aid Agency for the refusal was that it would not lead to significant and material benefits to a large cohort of specific persons. Following an appeal against the decision legal aid funding has since been granted for the inquest, however this does demonstrate the difficulties encountered. Unfortunately, many families are unsuccessful in obtaining legal aid funding and find that they have to represent themselves at the inquest, when the other side have experienced legal representation.
A report, ‘The Patronising Disposition of Unaccountable Power’, was commissioned by the Home Office in 2017. The Right Reverend James Jones, Chair of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the Home Secretary’s advisor on Hillsborough, emphasised a ‘pressing need’ for bereaved families to receive publicly funded legal representation at inquests where public bodies were legally represented.
The Ministry of Justice carried out a review of the current availability of legal aid and confirmed on the 7th February 2019 that it would not introduce automatic public funding where the state was represented. Inquest, a campaign charity, had called for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist representation immediately after a state-related death.
The Ministry confirmed that the purpose of means testing served to determine the allocation of taxpayers’ money to those most in need, for the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation was justified. However, following a freedom of Information request the charity, Inquest, has obtained shocking data demonstrating that in 2017 the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on the prison and probation service for legal representation at inquests for prisoner deaths, while the relatives of the deceased were granted just £92,000 through the Legal Aid Agency’s exceptional funding scheme. These figures demonstrate the significant inequality of arms experienced by bereaved and grieving families following a state-related death.
Yesterday, the issue of public funding at inquests was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament. Labour MP, Ms Stephanie Peacock, noted
'On the one hand, state bodies and representatives are equipped with access to unlimited funds and resources - the best experts and the best legal teams. On the other hand, vulnerable families in the midst of grief are forced to navigate a complex and alien application process that is provided with the bare minimum of support - indeed, most people will not even receive that.'
Conservative MP, Mr Tim Loughton, confirmed that the only parties whose legal representation would not be paid for at a forthcoming inquest over the 2015 Shoreham Airshow crash were the families of the 11 victims, which he said was a ‘travesty of justice’.
MW Solicitors passionately believes that bereaved families should be entitled to legal representation at an Inquest. The recent figures demonstrate the significant and alarming disparity in funding for legal representation and highlights the need for equality of arms between families and the state.
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At MW Solicitors, our mission is "To make quality legal services accessible to everyone" including bereaved families who deserve to know the circumstances of their loved ones death.