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Legal aid for inquests: Now or never!

By Rebecca Roberts, Head of Policy at INQUEST

Whether it is the death of a child in a mental health setting, a prisoner who has taken their life, or a death as a result of neglectful state services, families need answers and assurances that everything is being done to stop similar deaths in the future.

There remains an unjust power imbalance between bereaved families who fight tooth and nail for funding for legal representation and state bodies who have automatic access to taxpayer’s money for expert legal teams.

To have any chance of funding, and at a time when they are grieving, families must jump through multiple hoops, answering extensive personal questions. Some are lucky to get legal aid, but many do not or face paying large sums towards legal costs. Some families are forced to represent themselves in complicated legal hearings while others resort to crowdfunding.

Now or never! Legal aid for inquests

On 26 February, INQUEST launched our family led Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests campaign in parliament and opened a petition. The campaign is calling for the introduction of automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following state related deaths.

The launch followed the decision by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to reject widely supported proposals and overwhelming evidence in favour of fair legal funding for bereaved people. The detail of this proposal is outlined in a new briefing by INQUEST. The briefing shows that every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed.

The petition gathered 2,000 signatories on the first day and the number of supporters continues to rise. The campaign has formal backing of Liberty, Grenfell United, Mind, United Families and Friends Campaign, The Bar Council, Cruse Bereavement Care, Legal Action Group, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, AvMA, Runnymede Trust, Criminal Justice Alliance, Operation Black Vote, Article 39, ICVA and INQUEST Lawyers Group.

Families will not be silenced!

Over 100 people gathered at the parliamentary meeting chaired by Rt Rev James Jones and attended by more than 40 bereaved families alongside MPs, Peers, lawyers and organisational representatives.

Rt Rev James Jones, author of the powerful Hillsborough report which calls for parity of funding between bereaved families and other parties, said that the current situation “is an offence to natural justice and a solution must be found”.

We heard powerful contributions from families speaking about their personal battles for legal aid following the death of their loved one. Dr Sara Ryan, mother of Connor Sparrowhawk, an 18 year old who drowned in a locked bathroom in an NHS unit, had to crowdfund £27,000 to cover their legal fees and were up against seven state-funded barristers.

“To suggest that we didn’t need legal representation at the outset was totally obscene and barbaric”

Tania El Keria spoke about being ‘devastated and disgusted’ when she was told that she did not need representation following the death of her 14 year old daughter, Amy El Keria at a Priory group run children’s inpatient high dependency unit.

“I have had to fight for legal aid, fight for justice. Without funding there is no justice. The state and its agents are automatically funded to have legal representation. So must we. Anything less is second rate justice for us and the ones we have lost.”

Tellecia Strachan, sister of Kevin Clarke, who died in London last year following police contact and restraint spoke about the intrusive process families face to provide information about their finances for the current means test, which causes additional suffering whilst families are already grieving.

“The state – you’re just provided with it with taxpayers’ money and it’s wrong and it’s not fair on the families.

Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer QC, spoke of the Ministry of Justice’s proposals to provide better information to families, and Richard Burgon, Shadow Justice Secretary, pledged that a Labour government would provide automatic legal aid at inquests for the families of those who die in state detention.

Support the campaign

Without automatic access to non-means tested legal aid, bereaved families are denied their voice and any meaningful role. The absence of representation weakens investigations into state action, denying opportunities to interrogate the facts and ensure that mistakes or harmful practices are brought to light. Funded representation of the bereaved can safeguard lives, and is of vital interest to us all.

Please support our campaign by sharing the petition and help us to make clear to government that they must listen to families and implement meaningful reform of funding for inquests for bereaved people.