The government has been told by an influential group of MPs to revisit the issue of legal aid at inquests. The House of Commons justice select committee, chaired by the Conservative’s Bob Neill, said the inequality of arms between bereaved families and the state is ‘fundamentally unfair’.
The Ministry of Justice confirmed earlier this year that it would not introduce automatic public funding for families in cases where the state is represented. A month later, David Gauke told the House of Commons justice select committee that there are ways the government can be sympathetic and supportive to bereaved families without ending up in an ‘arms race’ in terms of who has the most and costliest lawyers.
However, in a letter to Gauke published yesterday, the committee said it was ‘fundamentally unfair for public bodies to have legal representation at the highest level of expertise while bereaved families are unrepresented - especially in relation to deaths in custody’.
Figures released by the charity Inquest revealed that, in 2017, the ministry spent £4.2m on legal representation for the prison and probation service - while grieving families received £92,000 through the Legal Aid Agency’s exceptional funding scheme.
The committee said: ‘We believe that this significant funding discrepancy makes a compelling case for the Ministry of Justice to look again at this issue as soon as possible.’
The funding issue was debated by MPs last month, where Labour’s Marie Rimmer, a member of the committee, said: ‘If we must use the analogy of an arms race, then at present the government can spend money on the legal equivalent of tanks, helicopters, fleets and so on, while the families of the bereaved are left with the legal equivalent of a stick.’
The committee’s letter bolsters Inquest’s ‘Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests’ campaign demanding automatic non-means tested public funding for families following a state-related death.
The ministry says the policy change would cost £30m to £70m.