Concerns around funding for inquests have increased as internal Ministry of Justice documents reveal grieving families are refused legal aid funding if they have previously crowdfunded inquests.

The dispute mainly concerns cases where state agencies, such as prisons or health trusts, have been involved in the death and whose staff are automatically represented whilst the loved ones of the deceased have to struggle to find a way of securing funding to enable legal representation at the inquest proceedings.

Internal Ministry of Justice (MoJ) documents have been released which reveal an official denying legal aid to any bereaved relatives who have resorted to crowdfunding. Email trails have been obtained by the organisation INQUEST, which supports families during inquest proceedings, and these highlight the automatic refusal to fund representation for families where state agencies have been involved in a death.

A Legal Aid Agency (LAA) caseworker has admitted that the current rules in place for families to obtain funding for representation impose a “burden” on some of the bereaved individuals. The documents also highlight concerns over whether the LAA have been making consistent decisions in relation to paying for travel to court for these proceedings.

In a survey filled out by an LAA caseworker in relation to any improvements which they could recommend, the response read: “The process of the means assessment is generally for single-party action and does not encapsulate the fact that the majority of inquests are class actions as families are involved in the process by way of their parents, siblings and children. If one family member isn’t eligible it can fall on them to shoulder the burden of contributions or pay for the legal advice themselves…”

INQUEST have long argued that the application for exceptional case funding certificates are unduly complex and intrusive. Applicants are required to disclose their ethnicity, marital status, property ownership, mortgages, value of their home, savings, income, partner’s income, childcare costs, tax liabilities, benefits and maintenance payments, and their wage slips, bank statements, pensions, rent books and student loans can all be inspected. The means-test threshold for legal aid entitlement has not been raised for years, which means that increasingly few applicants qualify for funding.

State funding is always available for representation of police, prison and healthcare staff involved in death in custody cases. This is often by the most experienced lawyers. However, family members have to go through an arduous and often traumatic experience of obtaining Legal Aid funding.

Crowdfunding for Inquests

Crowdfunding for inquests is a relatively new phenomenon. Families of those who died in the Birmingham Pub Bombings and the family of Molly Russell, who took her life after viewing disturbing material on social media platforms, are among those who have had to crowdfund for representation. In both cases, following high media criticism of the LAA’s decisions to refuse funding, some Legal Aid was granted on appeal. Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Nokes died in Peterborough prison in 2016 and, after struggling with the legal aid process, her family had to resort to crowdfunding to pay for representation at her inquest. Others who have had problems obtaining Legal Aid funding include the family of PC Keith Palmer, who was killed in the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack as Legal Aid wasn’t able to be secured in time for the inquest proceedings due to the complexities of the multiple assessments involved to obtain funding.

Can Crowdfunding Affect Legal Aid Applications?

The MoJ emails, released in response to freedom of information requests, appear to demonstrate an automatic rejection of any Legal Aid applications where families have sought help online to pay for legal representation – whether they managed to raise any funds or not. In one email, a senior official observed: “There is a trend of crowdfunding now for some high-profile inquests – so if that happens we don’t fund.”

In response, an MoJ spokesperson has told the Guardian: “There are cases where we have given legal aid where people have crowdfunded. It depends on how much they have raised.”

When asked about the specific comments in emails, an MoJ spokesperson said: “These comments have been taken out of context and misinterpreted.”

Deborah Coles, the director of INQUEST, said: “These documents are illustrative of the Ministry of Justice’s cynicism and lack of respect to the testimony of bereaved families and those working with them. Those involved appear content with maintaining an unjust system, rather than properly considering the overwhelming evidence on the need for fundamental reform.

Crowdfunding is a response to the desperate and uncertain position bereaved families are left in by the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice, not an alternative to a fair system. It is particularly shocking to see officials wishing to penalise families who have been able to fundraise.

“Non means tested public funding of inquests into state related deaths has the potential to make a real difference to the bereaved, the quality and preventative potential of inquests, and the administration of justice. The incoming government must act to end this injustice.”

INQUEST are calling on the government to address the injustice and to introduce automatic non-means tested legal and funding following a state-related death and funding equivalent to that enjoyed by state bodies. Their petition has over 95,000 signatures and counting.

The emails from late 2018 show civil servants discussing how to defend the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) position on a review into the rules. In February last year, a widespread call for automatic legal aid following state-related deaths was rejected by the MoJ. The MoJ Final Report: Review of legal aid for inquests came down against introducing “non-means-tested legal aid for inquests where the state has representation” due to the anticipated cost of provision being too high. It was estimated at costing between £30m and £70m a year, however; INQUEST argues the real cost would be closer to £5m. In April 2019, it was revealed that the MoJ spent 46 times more funding on its own representation compared to that for bereaved families, highlighting the high disparity and inequality faced by grieving families.

Both the previous Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton QC, and the current Chief Coroner, Mark Lucraft QC, have supported calls for legal aid to be provided to families at inquests where state agencies have been involved in the death and a review of the Hillsborough inquest by the Right Rev James Jones backed funding to be awarded to the bereaved when public bodies are represented.

Farleys’ inquest team have extensive experience of representing bereaved families at inquests.  For information about obtaining funding for representation at inquests, please contact the team on 0845 287 0939 or complete our online contact form.