It has been revealed that the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on its own legal representation in 2017, while bereaved families received just £92,000 in legal aid through the agency’s exceptional funding scheme – presenting a huge disparity where the prison and probation service receive 43 times more funding at the disadvantage of grieving families.
These shocking figures were extracted via a freedom of information request and were revealed by INQUEST-a charity which has been highlighting the inequality faced by grieving families at inquests for decades.
Rebecca Roberts, Inquest’s head of policy, said: “Inquests following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet bereaved families are facing well-funded legal teams defending the interests and reputations of state and corporate bodies, who work together to shut down or narrow lines of enquiry”
It was stated by former shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter that the government relied on the argument that inquests are an inquisitorial process, and that this is why it is not necessary for large sums to be spent on Legal Aid. However this begs the question, if this is the case, and families do not require legal representation, why is it such a necessity for the Ministry of Justice to receive such large amounts of funding to be represented by the best and most experienced legal teams?
Even where families do receive Legal Aid, they need to navigate a complex and alien process in order to get there. This is added stress to an already grieving family where in many cases they are after all not successful and placed in a position where they must either pay for a lawyer, or represent themselves and face the inquest alone.
The charity Inquest is calling for automatic and non-means tested legal aid funding. Earlier this year, Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary pledged that a Labour government would provide this. Labour MP Stephanie Peacock held a parliamentary debate on legal aid, opened by saying denial of legal aid for families at inquests, particularly those involving questions about whether the state had violated the right to life, was a “huge injustice at the heart of the justice system”.
There are about 500 inquests into deaths in custody, prisons and mental health institutions each year, resulting in about 500 families each year facing an uneven playing field in which they are faced with an intimidating and stressful experience, often with no legal representation to help guide them through it.
Farleys’ inquest team have extensive experience of representing bereaved families at inquests, including those who have been granted legal aid funding. For information about obtaining funding for representation at inquests, please contact the team on 0845 287 0939 or complete our online contact form.