Bereaved families of people who have died in police custody could be spared the ordeal of applying for legal aid, the government has hinted.
Responding to Dame Elish Angiolini QC's independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody, published yesterday, the government said the lord chancellor will review existing guidance 'so that it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the bereaved at an inquest' subject to the director of legal aid casework's 'overarching discretion'.
The government added: 'It will be also be made clear that in exercising the discretion to disregard the means test, consideration should be given to the distress and anxiety caused to families of the bereaved in having to fill out complex forms to establish financial means following the death of a loved one. This work will be completed by the end of the year.'
Some 1,500 people have died in UK police custody since 1990.
The issue of publicly funded legal advice and representation at inquests, especially the means test, will be considered as part of the government's post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, details of which were announced yesterday.
At present, the deceased's family has no automatic funding right to representation at an inquest. However, Angiolini said families need a lawyer to ensure they are able to play an effective role in the process. 'The combination of grief, trauma and lack of familiarity with the rules and procedures of the court make it wholly unfair for families to represent themselves during the whole process,' Angiolini said.
For inquests, legal help (the means-tested advice and assistance level of legal aid) is available to family members. This can cover the preparatory work associated with an inquest, such as helping families to prepare written questions they would like the coroner to ask. Legal representation at the inquest itself is available through the exceptional case funding scheme and is provided only where certain criteria are met.
One family, commenting on the means-testing process, told the review: 'They delved into our private lives. We felt we were being investigated, but we are the victims here.' By contrast, Angiolini found that 'all of the various branches of the state will attend inquests bristling with senior barristers and solicitors to represent them and ultimately, all paid for by the taxpayer'.
The coroner must go the extra mile to help unrepresented families, Angiolini added, which lengthens proceedings and increases costs, making the lack of automatic funding a false economy.
Suggesting that the government consider appropriate funding models, Angiolini highlighted 'bespoke schemes' established to provide funding for legal representation for the families of the deceased at the Hillsborough inquest and the Potters Bar rail disaster.
Angiolini was the first solicitor to be appointed solicitor-general for Scotland in 2001. She was the lord advocate of Scotland from 2006 until 2011.