NHS mental health trusts are spending 34 times the total amount granted in legal aid to bereaved families to be represented at inquests, figures obtained through a freedom of information request suggest.
Charity Julie's Mental Health Foundation asked how much 53 mental health trusts in England spent on lawyers at inquests in the 2017-18 financial year. Responses from 26 trusts revealed that they spent £4m. By contrast, the Legal Aid Agency paid £117,968 towards fees for legal representation for families following the death of a relative in contact with mental health services.
The funding disparity features on BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme, which will be broadcast this evening (Tuesday) and on Sunday.
Dr Rebecca Montacute, who set up the foundation, spoke to the programme about the difficulties her family faced after her mother died.
She said: 'The inquest into my mum's death found nine failings in her care. I am certain not all of these would have been found without us spending thousands of pounds from our own pocket on a lawyer. This is a failure in the current system. It doesn't protect future patients, it just allows mental health trusts to protect themselves.
'The government says that inquests are non-adversarial, so families don't need legal representation. But that is not the experience of families, who can be faced by several different legal teams when they themselves have nothing. Although a coroner tries to be neutral, how can anyone be neutral after hearing several well-thought-out questions from one side - designed to protect the mental health trust - and nothing or poorly formed questions from the other? Could you maintain a neutral stance after listening to just one side of a story for hours on end? It's a ridiculous system which isn't fit for purpose.'
BBC Radio 4's File on 4 also reveals that in the 2018 calendar year, the Legal Aid Agency granted £41,265 towards legal fees for families whose relatives died in police custody. Freedom of Information requests made by the programme reveal that 32 of the 44 police forces in England and Wales spent £410,000 on legal representation.
Earlier this year campaign charity Inquest, which has long called for an equality of arms, revealed that the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on legal representation for the prison and probation service - while grieving families received £92,000 through the LAA's exceptional funding scheme.
Deborah Coles, Inquest's director, said: 'This inequality of arms is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families. Every review considering legal aid for Inquests over the past 20 years has recommended this injustice be addressed. The shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed.'