Are recent changes in the Lord Chancellor’s guidance for legal aid for representation of bereaved families at inquests finally a step in the right direction?
Legal aid is currently provided under the government’s exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme and is only available in limited circumstances. However, the Ministry of Justice have announced that the amendments to the guidance now makes clear that public funding is likely to be awarded to families following a non-natural death or suicide of someone who was detained by police, in prison or in a mental health unit.
Caseworkers assessing legal aid applications must give particular consideration to the distress and anxiety that the bereaved families are suffering when deciding whether to apply the financial means test. Only the individual applicant’s financial means will be tested. Often, the process of applying for funding for legal representation at an inquest can be extremely challenging and intrusive. In some circumstances it may even lead to bereaved families wanting to “give up on the process.” They lose faith and ultimately risk not being represented at all because they simply cannot deal with the added stress of applying for funding at a time when they are still coming to terms with the loss of their loved one.
This announcement was made after concerns and frustrations were voiced by families and practitioners at a conference on the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO). Families gave powerful testimonies about their personal experiences of the inquest process and highlighted the “inequality of arms” families face in accessing legal support when state agencies such as NHS organisations, the prison service and the police are represented by experienced lawyers funded by the state.
Only very recently we have experienced families being refused funding on the basis that the Legal Aid Agency are of the opinion they have sufficient means to fund their own legal representation. One example is a case which is listed for a 2 week inquest and involves multiple state agencies that are all represented by solicitors and counsel. The case is extremely complex and disclosure is voluminous. The family are expected to pay for their legal representation out of their retirement savings.
INQUEST continue to campaign for automatic non-means tested public funding for all bereaved families in state-related inquests as recommended by the Angiolini and Bishop’s Reviews, the Bach Commission and the Chief Coroner’s Annual Report.
If you require assistance with the inquest process or advice about the costs involved, please get in touch with Farleys’ experienced inquests team on 0845 287 0939 or submit your enquiry through our online contact form.