Coroner backs legal funding bid for Birmingham pub bombings families
The Birmingham pub bombings coroner, hearing inquests into the deaths of 21 victims, has backed a bid for legal funding by bereaved families.
Peter Thornton, QC, one of the country's most senior coroners, said: "I commend the application for legal funding for those who are considering them."
He added: "There is a compelling case for proper legal representation."
Mr Thornton indicated he wanted the funding issue - which has led to a war of words between some of the families and the Government - to be settled by early next year.
On Monday, the coroner convened the first pre-inquest hearing into the 1974 double bombings in Birmingham, in a bid to establish the scope of the proceedings.
He also said he had neither the power nor the authority to order funding to be put in place.
On the night of November 21 1974, the IRA planted two bombs which ripped through the Tavern in the Town and nearby Mulberry Bush pubs, killing 21 people and injuring 182 others.
The botched police investigation into the terrorist atrocity led to the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six - one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice.
Monday's hearing was the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy inquest process, since the families won a ruling from Birmingham senior coroner Louise Hunt for new hearings earlier this year.
Mr Thornton said: "I do wish to say I support the applications of those families who wish to participate fully in these inquests by way of legal representation."
He added: "The events of November 21 1974 brought about the tragic deaths of 21 people.
"These were calamitous events and require full and fair investigation at least as far the inquest procedures may permit, under law."
The hearing at the city's civil justice centre took place amid the funding row between the lawyers of eight of the 21 victims' families and the Government.
Their solicitors, and that of a ninth family represented separately, raised the funding issue directly with Mr Thornton in a packed court room.
Among those in court was the well-known human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, who is believed to be representing the surviving members of the Birmingham Six.
West Midlands Police, the local Police Federation, and Devon and Cornwall Police were also represented.
Mr Thornton said: "I have in mind the gravity of events, the scale of the number of deaths, the investigations to date, the complexity of the investigations and the need for the families' participation - which is very important.
"For those reasons I support the application for funding."
He expressed hopes funding would be granted - at the latest - six weeks before the provisional date for the next preliminary hearing on February 23.
He also stressed the need for the hearings to be an independent process.
The original inquests, convened in the 1970s, were overtaken by the criminal inquiry by West Midlands Police and never re-started.
The force had opposed the holding of new inquests, despite fresh evidence coming to light that police may have allegedly ignored two tip-offs of an imminent IRA attack in the city.
Lawyers for the families have been working for free, while legal teams for the police and other Government branches have been taxpayer-funded.
West Midlands Police has already set aside £1 million to cover its legal costs.
The Government had rejected a call from the families for a special funding model similar to that used in the Hillsborough stadium disaster inquiry.
Instead, Home Secretary Amber Rudd backed the relatives making an application, under existing arrangements, through the Legal Aid Agency.
However, under rules governing the UK's separate legal jurisdictions, the families' Northern Ireland-based lawyers KRW Law would need to partner with an English law firm to secure legal aid.
In court today, Christopher Stanley, of KRW Law, told the coroner such an agreement was "unworkable".
It emerged during the hearing that the West Midlands police and crime commissioner had written to the families suggesting the legal aid authorities in England and Wales meet their counterparts in Northern Ireland to see if agreement can be reached.
Mr Thornton also made a public appeal to eight families who have never made contact with the Birmingham coroner's office to do so if they wanted to be kept informed about the inquests.
Full inquest hearings are not likely to start before the end of September 2017.
Afterwards, Julie Hambleton of campaign group Justice4th21, whose older sister Maxine was killed in the bombings, said she welcomed the coroner's comments.
She added: "I will be writing to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to ask why are they treating our loved ones with such contempt."
The Government has said it wants all the families to be legally represented at the inquests, and had suggested a funding work-around.
A Government spokesman said: "Our deepest sympathies remain with all those affected by the horrific pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974.
"The Legal Aid Agency has been clear with KRW on a number of occasions what is needed to take this matter forward. Legal aid is a devolved matter and because KRW is based in Northern Ireland, it needs to enter into an arrangement with an English or Welsh law firm in order to receive legal aid funding.
"The LAA continues to urge KRW to do this so the families get the representation they want at the inquest."