An influential group of MPs has urged the government to ensure – within the next four months – equality of arms between bereaved families and the state at inquests.
In a hard-hitting report published today, the Commons justice select committee says bereaved people should not be put through the ‘difficult and time consuming’ process of trying to secure legal aid where public authorities are legally represented at public expense. It called on Robert Buckland’s department to introduce non-means tested legal aid for families by 1 October.
The committee also said it was 'unacceptable' that bereaved families are not entitled to automatic non-means tested legal aid at inquests into multiple deaths following a public disaster, pointing out that such inquests are complex. An equality of arms was a 'fundamental requirement' to enable families to participate fully.
MPs received devastating evidence about bereaved families' experiences.
One woman told the inquiry: ‘The police force and police officers involved had barristers, they also had members from the Police Federation and Professional Standards. There was me and a 4th year law student with all [the family] behind me. The first three days were just terrifying, I felt way out of my depth and just thought I was letting my family down as they were so desperate for answers to what had happened to their son and brother.’
After reviewing legal aid availability at inquests, the Ministry of Justice decided in 2019 that it would not introduce automatic public funding where the state is represented, saying the additional £30m-£70m spend would run counter to the wider policy intention of ensuring that legal aid was targeted at those who need it most, for the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation was justified.
Campaign charity Inquest coordinated evidence from 51 bereaved family members to the committee’s inquiry.
Commenting on the report, director Deborah Coles said: ‘The light touch reforms and piecemeal gestures around training, guidance, administration since 2009 made some improvements, but they have run their course and, ultimately, come up short… This must be a watershed moment in ensuring a fairer and accountable coronial system in the prevention of avoidable deaths.’