The Ministry of Justice has been accused of betraying those campaigning to ensure an equality of arms between bereaved families and the state at inquests.
After reviewing the current legal aid availability, the ministry yesterday confirmed in its final report that it will not introduce automatic public funding where the state is represented. The policy change would have cost between £30m to £70m.
The ministry said: 'Means testing serves to determine the allocation of taxpayers' money to those most in need. This mechanism upholds the wider policy intention of the existing legal aid statutory framework of ensuring that legal aid is targeted at those who need it most, for the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. An additional spend of £30m-£70m would run counter to this wider policy intention.'
Inquest, a campaign charity, had called for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist representation immediately after a state-related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.
Commenting on the report, Deborah Coles, Inquest director, said: 'The Ministry of Justice has failed to confront the reality of the uneven playing field faced by bereaved families, and the considered recommendations of all those who have looked at this issue. This is a dishonest response and a betrayal of those who invested in this review in the hope of securing meaningful change.
'Inquest and the bereaved families we work with will continue to campaign for what is so clearly needed: automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to families following a state-related death.'
In a government-commissioned report in 2017, the Right Reverend James Jones, who reviewed the experiences of the families affected by the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium disaster, highlighted a 'pressing need' for bereaved families to receive publicly funded legal representation at inquests where public bodies are legally represented.
The ministry said in yesterday's report that it considered the issue 'in great detail'.
'In the main, responses from bereaved families and representative bodies suggested that public funding for families in these cases is required to ensure that there is an equality of arms. However, a number of stakeholders pointed out that it should not be assumed that in cases where the state has legal representation, representation for the family is necessarily required nor that it enhances the results of the coroner's investigation. They suggested that the addition of further lawyers might actually hinder the process, by making the process more adversarial and legally complex,' the ministry said.
The ministry said it wants to 'explore further options' for funding legal support where the state has state-funded representation, adding that 'to do this we will work closely with other government departments'.