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Families face shocking injustice over legal aid for inquests, campaigners say

Director of Inquest Deborah Coles said the ‘inequality of arms’ was the ‘single greatest obstacle to bereaved families’.

The campaign has received support from campaign groups and legal organisations (Neil Lancefield/PA)
The campaign has received support from campaign groups and legal organisations (Neil Lancefield/PA)

By Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

Grieving families are facing a “shocking” injustice when trying to get legal aid funding for the inquest of a loved one who died in state care, campaigners claims.

Charities have called for an end to the disparity between the amount of publicly funded legal aid being provided to state bodies and families.

It comes as figures suggest mental health trusts, police forces and the prison service are spending millions of pounds on legal representation at inquests, in comparison to the thousands of pounds the Legal Aid Agency has given to bereaved families for such hearings over a similar period of time.

The figures form part of an investigation by BBC Radio 4’s File On 4 programme about families being denied legal aid.

The inquiry after someone has died in state care is intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices – yet families face multiple state lawyers, paid for at public expense, who frequently put defence of their interests above the search for the truth, the charity Inquest said.

It has called for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for families immediately following a state-related death, which is the equivalent to that allowed for state bodies and public authorities or corporate organisations also represented at hearings.

The shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed Deborah Coles, Inquest

The campaign has received support from some campaign groups and legal organisations, as well as its petition to the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland receiving almost 70,000 signatures so far.

Charity director Deborah Coles said the “inequality of arms” was the “single greatest obstacle to bereaved families” and their voices were “silenced” without legal representation.

She added: “The shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed.

“Every review considering legal aid for inquests over the past 20 years has recommended this injustice be addressed.

“The suggestion by government that inquests are non-adversarial is dishonest.

“It denies the reality of the uneven playing field that confronts bereaved families at complex inquests.

“The more failings identified, the more accountability and the chance to learn and prevent more deaths in the future.

“The public interest is served by this and the changes inquests can bring about.”

Some 26 mental health trusts said £4,026,787.45 was spent on legal representation, according to figures obtained by Julie’s Mental Health Foundation under freedom of information (FOI) laws.

It had asked 53 such organisations in England how much money they had spent on lawyers at inquests in the 2017-2018 financial year.

In the same year the Legal Aid Agency is said to have paid a total of £117,968 towards fees for legal representation at inquests for families following the death of a relative in contact with mental health services, the research suggests.

Thirty two police forces in England and Wales said their legal bills totalled £409,744.81 – ten times the amount of legal aid granted in 2018 to families whose relatives died in police custody (£41,265), according to FOI figures obtained by the BBC.

In 2017, the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2 million on Prison and Probation Service legal representation at prison inquests, while just £92,000 was granted in exceptional case legal aid funding to bereaved families, according to FOI data obtained by Inquest.

The figures provide only a partial figure of the scale, as the data for some bodies were not provided, including private companies, and because individual members of staff can be represented separately from their organisation at inquests.

Legal aid was introduced on July 30 1949 to help pay for representation in court proceedings and marked its 70th anniversary this year.

Over the years provision has prompted controversy in several high-profile inquests in recent years, including into the London Bridge and Manchester terror attacks, the Shoreham Airshow crash, and individuals including Connor Sparrowhawk.

In all of these cases families described a battle to get funding for legal representation when they were up against state bodies who had automatic access to publicly funded lawyers, or they hit out over the intrusive process.

The number of applications to the Legal Aid Agency for exceptional case funding is at its highest since records began, with a 21% increase in the last year, according to the Ministry of Justice’s latest figures.

Some 888 applications were received between April and June alone, in comparison to 735 in the same period last year.

More than a quarter of them were denied, with 104 refused and 158 rejected.

Provisional figures for 2018-19 suggest there were 3,021 requests for funding, in comparison to a confirmed number of 1,516 in 2013-14.

The Ministry of Justice reiterated its position that representation for families was “not necessary”, saying the process was not designed to “place blame” so legal arguments were “not required” and families could ask questions of witnesses themselves during hearings with the coroner’s permission.

A spokeswoman said: “We sympathise with all those who have lost loved ones.

“Legal aid funding is currently available at inquests in exceptional cases, with more than half of all applications approved.

“Bereaved families are supported by coroners who can ask questions on their behalf, and we are making wider changes to offer them more help at such a difficult time.”

File On 4: Families versus the state: An unfair fight? is on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on Tuesday.

PA

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