Practitioners have welcomed the government's announcement that guidance for its legal aid safety net will be amended to make it easier for families of people who have died in custody to receive public funding.
Legal aid is currently provided under the government's exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme. However, the Ministry of Justice says the lord chancellor's guidance now makes clear that public funding is likely to be awarded to families following a non-natural death or suicide of someone who was detained by police, in prison or in a mental health unit.
Caseworkers must give particular consideration to the distress and anxiety that the bereaved families are suffering when deciding whether to apply the financial means test. Only the individual applicant's financial means will be tested.
A spokesperson for the ministry said: 'We understand the inquest process can be difficult and have every sympathy for the family of the deceased. These changes will reduce the stress and anxiety as far as possible for cases involving deaths in custody.'
Today's announcement was made as ministry officials listened to practitioners' frustrations at a conference on the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) organised by the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group.
Delegates attending a workshop on actions against the state welcomed the news that other family members' means will not be tested for legal aid at inquests. However, Fiona Rutherford, deputy director for legal aid policy, heard about ECF applications being refused, even at appeal stage, but being granted when judicial review action was threatened. Practitioners were also frustrated that they could not speak directly to an ECF caseworker.
Earlier in the day MoJ officials heard unanimous calls for the legal aid means test to be urgently reviewed and for thresholds to be updated. The dearth of legal providers was another significant concern repeated throughout the morning. A solicitor from one major firm told the conference that her practice recently advertised to fill a vacancy and received only two applications.
Officials made several notes from today's conference as part of its ongoing review of LASPO. The review is expected to be completed this year.