Access to justice remains a fundamental right and the Government are committed to ensuring everyone can get the support they need to access the justice system. We recently launched our legal support action plan, with a series of changes to enhance the breadth of legal support made available.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position and his excellent answer. Many are concerned that reductions in legal aid from 2000 onwards have gone too far, meaning that people struggle to get access to justice. Does he agree that the time has come better to fund legal aid, rethink the abolition of conditional fee agreements and ensure the court system as a whole is funded, to make sure we uphold the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is clearly easily pleased by my answers. Last year we spent £1.6 billion alone on legal aid, and that will continue. Our legal support action plan includes such measures as reviewing the means test for legal aid and the criminal legal aid fee scheme, so we constantly look to ensure the level of support is correct and appropriate.
The role of families at inquests is one of the most distressing that they come across. In February the Government said they would look into further options for the funding of legal support for families at inquests where the state has state-funded representation. What progress has the Department made that I can report back to my constituents who have suffered?
The hon. Lady makes a very fair point, and I am concerned about that myself. There has to be equality of arms in the courtroom and in inquests when the state is represented—when the state has a duty of care towards individuals. We are looking into this topic; I have nothing to report at present but I constantly engage with my officials on it. I am interested in it myself and would be happy to meet the hon. Lady if she wishes to share her ideas.
My hon. Friend alights on the pertinent point that not all legal support needs to come in the form of legal aid at the point at which a case reaches a court. Legal support can take many forms and shapes. Indeed, it might consist of a very early conversation to inform someone that their case has no merit and is best dealt with through mediation or some other means in the community.
Two years ago, Taylor Alice Williams died while she was supposed to be under the care of the state in a secure children’s home. Her bereaved mother, who is unable to work due to a disability, was recently told she would have to contribute thousands of pounds for legal representation at the inquest into her daughter’s death. Families should not be forced to mount press campaigns to get the legal aid they deserve.
There are too many families in this desperate situation. The Government’s own review estimates that 500 families a year lose a loved one in custody or state detention, leading to an inquest. Does the Secretary of State regret his recent decision to refuse those families legal aid, and will he revise the decision?
Inquests should always have bereaved families at the heart of the process, and legal aid decisions need to be considered in that light. Our recent review underlined the importance of preserving an inquisitorial, as opposed to adversarial, approach, meaning there ought to be less need for lawyers. None the less, as Dame Elish Angiolini’s report stressed, while the state has a duty of care there is a case for reviewing the thresholds and criteria appropriate for legal aid entitlement as part of a wider review into legal aid entitlement.