Giving bereaved families an independent public advocate (IPA) to help them participate in inquests does not address the fact they still need legal aid, the bar's representative body has told the government.
It was responding to a Ministry of Justice consultation on the role of an independent public advocate to support bereaved people following a disaster to ensure their voices are heard in investigations, inquests and inquiries.
However the Bar Council said today that the ministry's proposals do not solve the 'key problem' of lack of funding for independent representation. 'In order to participate fully in the processes which follow a disaster, survivors and the bereaved need access to independent legal services,' its response said.
The bar added that the term 'Independent Public Advocate' is an 'inherently misleading' title because the advocate is acting as an intermediary between the victims and the statutory bodies. It suggests 'Independent Public Adviser' would be better.
It adds: 'There has been extensive media coverage of the challenges facing core participants in public inquiries who are unable to obtain legal aid to fund independent representation. Given this context, it is likely that those who are introduced to an "Independent Public Advocate" following a disaster will find it difficult to understand that the IPA is not in fact able to advocate on their behalf in legal proceedings and that the role has not been created in response to demands for the provision of funding for legal representation for victims.'
However, chances of a name change are slim. The government said in its consultation paper that it was confident the role will become clearly understood in the public mind once it has been established.
The bar suggests the IPA should be legally qualified as they will likely be giving legal or quasi-legal advice such as what might happen in legal proceedings, and participants' rights to access documents.
IPA support should also be available to survivors, the bar says, pointing out that applications by survivors' groups to be 'interested persons' were refused in the 7 July 2005 London attacks and the Lakanal House fire inquests.
The ministry is already looking into how it can address a perceived inequality of arms between individuals and the state at inquests. Last week an independent review into the Mental Health Act 1983 recommended that the government should provide non-means-tested funding to families of detainees who have died unnaturally, violently or by suicide.