A group of MPs are calling on the government to establish non-means tested legal aid for families at inquests. They argue that bereaved families have been ‘failed’ by successive governments as a result of the legal aid application process families currently have to navigate.
Currently, the legal aid application requires a means assessment to be carried out prior to families securing funding to cover all preparation up to and including the inquest itself. A report published on 27th May 2021 by the Commons Justice Select Committee says that bereaved families should not have to go through the ‘difficult and time consuming’ process of trying to secure legal aid funding, particularly when public authorities are represented using taxpayer funding.
The report also argues that it is ‘unacceptable’ that inquests into multiple deaths following a public disaster provide no automatic access to legal aid for families, as such cases are often extremely complex. Examples of such a case include the inquests following the Hillsborough Disaster, for which the bereaved families had to go through means assessments to secure funding.
The report details that an ‘equality of arms’ is a ‘fundamental requirement’ to allow families to participate fully in the inquest process. This calls for both families and state bodies to have access to legal representation throughout the process by removing the means assessment hurdle families currently have to overcome.
The need for an alteration in the legal aid process was highlighted by evidence given from a bereaved family member to the committee. She commented that ‘the police officers involved had barristers, they also had members from the Police Federation and Professional Standards.’ In comparison, this particular individual attended the inquest with a fourth year law student. She comments that ‘the first three days were just terrifying’ and that she felt she was letting her family down as a result of being so out of her depth.
The Ministry of Justice did review the availability of legal aid for inquests in 2019, however, at the time they decided to not introduce an automatic entitlement to legal aid in cases where the state is represented. Their reasoning for doing so was based on the wider policy consideration of ensuring that legal aid is available to those who need it most and for the most serious cases where legal representation is justified.
Deborah Coles, director of campaign charity INQUEST, commented: ‘this must be a watershed moment in ensuring a fairer and accountable coronial system in the prevention of avoidable deaths.’
The Committee has set 1st October 2021 as a deadline for the government to implement the change.
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