A widespread call for automatic legal aid following state-related deaths has been rejected by the Ministry of Justice

For decades the charity INQUEST, together with the families and professionals in this area, has highlighted the inequality faced by bereaved families at inquests. The inquest process is intended to place the family at the heart of the inquest process into the death of their loved one but challenges many face in securing public funding to be legally represented, in what can often be a daunting, stressful and complex process, often means they are left facing this alone. Following a call for evidence into the review of legal aid for inquests, yesterday the Ministry of Justice published their final report.

An inquest is a public hearing held to determine the answer to four questions. Who the deceased was, when they died, where they died and how they died. Legal aid for representation of families is provided through what is known as ‘exceptional case funding.’ Funding for preliminary advice and preparation in connection with the inquest process is also available; however, both of these are subject to means-testing and are only available in limited circumstances. This causes additional anxiety and worry to families who are already distressed and grieving. In most cases, families know very little about the circumstances surrounding the death of their family member and are not equipped to deal with the inquest process on their own.

On the other hand, state bodies have unlimited access to public funding and can instruct the best legal teams and experts. Police officers, prison staff, NHS trusts and other state agencies are represented by highly experienced legal teams, including senior barristers and Queen’s Counsel.

Where families are denied public funding they are left dealing with complex and lengthy inquests alone. They do not have the knowledge or experience to question witnesses who are often medical professionals and experts or address the Coroner on legal submissions unlike the organisations involved. Ultimately, this means that families are denied a meaningful role in the inquest process. The absence of representation for families can often mean that families have many unanswered questions at the end of the inquest and are denied the opportunities to highlight failings that may have occurred in respect of the death of their loved one and identify unsafe practices to prevent future deaths occurring.

INQUEST are calling for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for families, to include financial support and funding to an equivalent level to state bodies.

Support for the proposal to introduce automatic legal aid, without the requirement of means testing, for bereaved families dates back to the 1999 Macpherson report. Support includes the previous and current Chief Coroner, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act, the Independent Office for Police Conduct and the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody.

In their review, the Ministry of Justice commit to improving guidance regarding the coronial process and legal aid criteria. The Ministry of Justice also note the inconsistent approaches by coroners, examples of problematic behaviour of legal representatives at inquests and inconsistency in the availability of support services in coroner’s courts.

Initially the Ministry of Justice committed to a further public consultation on changes recommended, however, this report only proposes for evidence to be now considered as a review into the thresholds for legal aid entitlement.

INQUEST will be relaunching their campaign in parliament later this month.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “The Ministry of Justice have failed to confront the reality of the uneven playing field faced by bereaved families, and the considered recommendations of all those who have looked at this issue. This is a dishonest response and a betrayal of those who invested in this review in the hope of securing meaningful change. INQUEST and the bereaved families we work with will continue to campaign for what is so clearly needed: automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to families following a state-related death.”

For legal advice on inquests or for legal representation at an inquest, get in touch with Farleys Solicitors on 0845 287 0939 or email us today.