Amendment 269

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 22nd November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Lord Falconer of Thoroton:

Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton

269: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Assistance for bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries(1) With respect to inquests, and public inquiries relating to deaths or serious injuries, and where one or more public authority, or private entity whose relevant activity falls within subsection (2), are designated as “interested persons” (IPs) or “core participants” (CPs), bereaved IPs and CPs shall be entitled to publicly-funded legal assistance and representation at the same level or in proportion to the resources provided to the public authority or private entity, as set out in Schedule (Assistance for bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries: amendment of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012).(2) Relevant activity of a private entity falls within this subsection where it—(a) is delegated or contracted from a public authority, or(b) is one where the private entity or individual owes a health and safety responsibility to the public or a section of it, including but not limited to sporting, leisure and entertainment events and premises, public transport systems and the provision of utilities and retail facilities.”Member’s explanatory statementCombined with the proposed new schedule to follow Schedule 20, this amendment would ensure that bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries received legal aid proportionate to the legal expenditure by any public authorities involved in the inquest or inquiry (so-called “equality of arms”).

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, this is a completely different topic. Amendment 269 would

“ensure that bereaved persons and core participants at inquests and public inquiries received legal aid proportionate to the legal expenditure by any public authorities involved in the inquest or inquiry”.

It is, in effect, the equality of arms measure.

In the Hillsborough situation, people suffered an incredibly grievous wrong in respect of their loved ones, then found themselves ranged against lawyers and QCs. As a QC myself, I make it clear that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with QCs, but imagine finding yourself ranged against seven public authorities, all of which have an interest in trying to ensure that their public authority is exonerated, while the individual victims have no right to legal representation at all. They may get the benefit of discretionary funding from the Lord Chancellor, who can give that funding for inquests, but it is entirely at the discretion of a Government Minister. That is inappropriate. In relation to these sorts of cases, the right course is that where there is a big disaster, the people who are most affected should be able to appear at the inquest, which is going to affect what may happen in the future, while having equality of arms with the person or bodies against whom they will be ranged.

Amendments 270 to 274 intend to establish

“a public advocate to provide advice to representatives of the deceased after major incidents.”

So many families affected by a major incident have nowhere to go because there is no lawyer experienced in these sorts of matters. They have nobody to speak on their behalf and find, all too often, the public sector unwilling to give them help—for fear that individual members of the public sector may be making their own section of it liable to some sort of damages in court subsequently. The public advocate scheme is a means of providing support for the victims in those tragedies. I very much hope that the Government will listen, look at these amendments favourably and recognise the injustices that have occurred over the years as a result of there not being proper representation at inquests nor a public advocate to speak for the victims of these disasters. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise to offer Green support for Amendment 269 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to which I have attached my name. I offer support for all the amendments here. The noble and learned Lord spoke about a big group case affecting many people. I shall to a single case.

In 2014, a seven-year-old boy, Zane Gbangbola, went to sleep in his bed. He never woke up, and his father, sleeping nearby, has been forced to use a wheelchair ever since. The Fire Brigades Union, the PCS Union and many other people—including his father Kye’s doctors—were convinced that Zane was poisoned by hydrogen cyanide gas that came from a landfill site nearby, carried by floodwaters. Before this tragic event, the Environment Agency had actually protected its own staff in a nearby building with a special membrane in the foundations to ensure there was no risk of an event like this.

There was, of course, an inquest. At that inquest no fewer than six public bodies, whose actions might have been called into question, were represented by the best legal counsel money can buy—with public money. The Gbangbola family was denied legal aid, so the grieving parents, sitting in a court room and hearing the most awful possible details about their son’s death, were forced to operate with only limited legal support, with funds raised by a public appeal. As the noble and learned Lord said, the European Convention on Human Rights calls for an equality of arms in trials. There was no such equality at Zane’s inquest.

We also need to stress the public interest concern here. As was the case, tragically, in Zane’s death, we know that the world is facing new dangers. The country is facing new dangers. We need honesty and transparency about what those are. The weather that led to that flooding was linked to the climate emergency. Several years after this, Kye Gbangbola said

“we need to unlock the doors for the truth to come out”.

This is about the death of one child, but it is also about the safety of everybody. The lack of legal aid at that inquest was a factor in the truth not coming out. The family is continuing to campaign. Indeed, I was in Glasgow with them at a side event to the COP 26 climate talks. They are calling for a Zane’s Law to address weaknesses in our law that were deliberately introduced a decade ago, putting profits before human lives. This is why the seven amendments about a public advocate are terribly important. We cannot rely on families—indeed, sometimes there will not be a family—in a case where someone has died, to ensure that the courts are helping us to uncover what actually happened in the case of tragedies.

Had there been equality of arms at Zane’s inquest, we might be much further down the road to getting a change in the law that we all need to keep us safe. I strongly urge the Government to act on all of these amendments, but particularly Amendment 269 and the related amendment, not just for Zane or the Hillsborough families but for everybody.

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I support this amendment. As a former Victims Commissioner, I have met too many victims who had asked for representation or legal aid and felt that their voice was not heard. They were, in their words, “bullied” by the heavies on the other side, who were rich and could pay for QCs or whatever. Again, they felt that their voice was not going to be heard.

I am talking about high-end cases here; I am talking about terrorism, bombers, women hearing their husband exploded at the other end of the phone, and still have no help from the Government. I support this amendment because now, with all the high-risk terrorism we are seeing—even with the Tunisian support that was very poor, I have to say, because there was a third party involved—we are going to lose the public coming with us and understanding what is going on. An inquest is not a courtroom as such: everybody is there, and all the families are trying to listen about their loved ones and their lives. I know from personal experience about when somebody is talking about our loved ones and yet nobody can stand up from our side to present the same quality, the same questioning.

In this day and age, I ask the Minister and the Government to have a round-table talk about how we can fix this. The inquest is such an irritant to the families, and it does not help them get past the trauma. If we cannot help them, they will not be confident to go through the system. These are high-end cases we are talking about. I know the families of Hillsborough as well, and they have gone through the mill over all these years. Did they get any justice? They have had to fight hard, tooth and nail.

I heard one woman—I will not name her—whose son heard that bomb go off on an oil rig, and the Government were still redacting and did not give the legal aid. The time has come to have an open and transparent discussion about giving the support that they quite rightly deserve.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, some time ago when the Hillsborough matter was before this House, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I think, and I put forward a suggestion that the coroner in an inquest should have power to allow a public authority, or an authority with resources, to put forward a defence using lawyers for that purpose, and that a condition of granting such permission should be that the authority is responsible for providing the necessary funding for the relatives of the deceased to be represented. The choice of who they would use, of course, would be for the relatives, but the provision of the necessary money would be a matter for the authority—at the level at which the authority wanted to do it—so that there would be obvious equality of arms.

I think it is a much better solution than legal aid. Needless to say, I have had, some time ago, some experience of dealing with legal aid. I had the authority as Lord Chancellor to grant legal aid in specific cases that I thought required it, but I think it is much better, fairer and less burdensome to the public, that this should be the rule. It seems to me this is quite easy to systematise when you have more than one of these authorities. Hillsborough is a good example of what happened when there was no proper representation for some of the relatives. This is a suggestion that goes along with the spirit of the first amendment the noble and learned Lord has put forward, and I venture to think that it is an effective point of view.

I am glad to see that the noble Lord, I referred to has returned because I think he will probably remember that he and I were pretty well agreed about what should be done. Needless to say, the Home Office said it would be reviewed when the details of Hillsborough, the prosecutions and so on, were finished. Of course, that happened some time ago, but I see no sign of any kind of innovation from the Home Office, until it agrees with this amendment in spirit.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

We have always been able to rely on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for ingenuity when difficult problems have to be resolved. This one seems to have got lost in the Home Office somewhere. That is a pity because the problem that these amendments raise is long-running and serious. It is open to discussion, whether the amendments are the best way of dealing it, but I do not think we can go on ignoring it or failing to deal with it in any adequate way.

When the families of people who have died in a serious incident are confronted with the inquest process—something that of course does not happen in Scotland, unless a fatal accident inquiry is instituted—they are often confronted by lawyers representing public or large private bodies and with issues that are really difficult for them to deal with and cope with. There may be an issue around the direct failure or contribution of a public body, such as a transport undertaking, or a private company, such a chemical company, to the death of the person they have lost. The inequality of arms must seem so very severe in that situation. They may be confronted by public bodies defending themselves against a failure of regulation which, if it had been properly carried out, would have prevented the death. In one of the most difficult ones, they may be confronted by a situation in which the response of the emergency services—often so wonderful and good—failed. That is one of the issues being argued over in Manchester, for example.

All these are extremely challenging issues. To be confronted by someone who is trained in and knows how to explore all the ways in which the law might let the company or public body off its responsibility in that area is an extraordinary challenge to face. Therefore, I think there is widespread agreement in this Committee, and more generally, that help has to be provided, and that there needs to be more certainty of it than the limited ways it can be provided under the present system.

I am not yet persuaded that the super-structure of a public advocate is the necessary means of making this available. This is one of the reasons why, although I was attracted by the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I am not sure that it fully meets the case either. But it is clear that quality advice, support and advocacy, needs to be available and offered.

There is another kind of case I should mention, and which will stay in people’s minds, particularly if they remember Hillsborough, and that is the circumstance in which the process, or activity outside the process by the media, has cast a slur upon the victims—on those who have died. When confronted by that, people despair. In Liverpool, their answer was not to take the Sun newspaper anymore, but that is a pretty limited response to a slur being cast which suggests that the family which has suffered death has done so because of some non-existent failing on the part of the victim. These are very desperate situations in which people find themselves, and I am not sure that we are doing enough to help them.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:30 pm, 22nd November 2021

My Lords, I too support the principle behind Amendment 269. We regularly see the disturbing prospect of bereaved families being unrepresented when public bodies have very competent representation. This undermines public confidence in justice, and it sometimes impedes the ability of the coroner or the public inquiry to get to the truth of matters of enormous public importance.

However, I am not persuaded that the mechanism contained in Amendment 269, in proposed new subsection (1), is the correct one. It provides that the representation for bereaved families must be

“at the same level or in proportion to the resources provided to the public authority or private entity”.

I would be content if competent representation were provided.

I draw to the attention of the Committee that there are cases in the Court of Appeal where it has been argued, under the Human Rights Act, that a defendant in a criminal case was entitled to representation under legal aid by Queen’s Counsel because the prosecution was represented by Queen’s Counsel. The Court of Appeal said no, and that what they are entitled to—and rightly so—is competent representation. So I think this is going too far.

The noble and Learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, suggested one way forward: that the public body should make provision. Another way of dealing with it would be for the chairman of the inquiry, or the coroner, to have a statutory discretion to order that specific persons be provided with public funding, whether by legal aid or otherwise. There are a variety of mechanisms, but I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that the principle now needs to be enacted.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, I shall speak shortly. I have always had a long interest in legal aid and its proper provision. My concern is that this amendment is aimed at the right target but goes too far. Look, for example, at the wording; as I understand it, it would apply every time there is an inquest involving someone who has died in a hospital. If that has been the result of possible negligence on the part of the hospital—I am talking about an NHS hospital here—then there is a potential claim against the hospital. If that potential claim has any reasonable merit, it is likely that solicitors experienced in medical and legal work will undertake the inquest because, in due course, if the claim is brought and damages are recovered and costs awarded, the cost of representation at the inquest will be recoverable in the personal injury action. That has been the case ever since the “Marchioness” disaster and the costs thereafter.

All I say is this: there should be representation in appropriate cases involving state institutions. We can all think of examples—not just Hillsborough; it could be a hospital or something else—where the state and a public authority are involved, and it is unfair to the family to have to scrabble around to get funds if they can. I would like to see careful consideration given by the Government to how this can be properly designed to find a balance. There is a strain on public resources; there are many other areas where legal aid is not provided, particularly in the family courts, and we know that funds are short. Equally, they should consider whether, in appropriate cases, it should be at the coroner’s discretion to direct the Legal Aid Agency to look at this. I argue that the Government should think very carefully about this and about what would be a fair balance, given the strain on public resources, to ensure that people who need and deserve it get resources provided to them.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, I support this whole group of amendments from my noble and learned friend and others. The reasons given by noble Lords are hugely compelling and, if anything, I think some noble Lords opposite are not enthusiastic enough. I hear the arguments about the public purse, but we would not be here if civil legal aid, in particular, had not been altogether obliterated and if there was not such a continuing injustice to bereaved families.

Frankly, I am not persuaded that there is something so awful about a greater equality of arms between hospital trusts and families who feel they have been sorely let down, or indeed between those families and a range of public authorities who can afford not competence but brilliance—they can afford the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, over there. I am not sure that “near competent” would be enough if you were faced with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. We need to have something like the intention behind this amendment; there should be some kind of equality of arms for these desperate people.

My heart broke when the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said that she has spoken to bereaved families who think of an inquest as an irritant. We should all be ashamed of that. Inquests, which are supposed to get to the bottom of things and be at least some kind of comfort to those families, should be the absolute opposite of an irritant.

I want to encourage my noble and learned friend not to let this go into the long grass, or to become an interesting probe that does not get anywhere because we are worried about the precise mechanism, because I am very concerned—we are still in the pandemic—about the coronavirus inquiry or inquiries that must come soon. There may not be another vehicle for amendments such as these, or legislation such as this, in time. It is incredibly important that, in a year or two, or whenever those inquiries happen, we have resolved this to some extent.

I fear we will not have resolved the general, dismal picture when it comes to civil legal aid, but at least we can come up with some kind of fix, however imperfect, to redress the balance of advice and representation for bereaved families. There will be a lot of very impoverished, vulnerable, bereaved families who will have nowhere near the access to private or public money. To be honest, whatever your ideological position, even the inequality between private corporations and bereaved families is bad enough, but surely, with public authorities and public money, there can be no excuse for such an imbalance in the use of that public money if we are really interested in the pursuit of justice.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Labour

My Lords, I also agree absolutely with the principles behind these amendments. It seems as though the Committee has been unanimously supportive up till now.

My question to the Minister is: why have we waited so long for something to happen in the area of inquests? I had hoped that there might be something in what has been rightly described as a Christmas tree Bill to help us along the way, but there is not. It has needed the amendments from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, to raise this issue. I was privileged enough to chair a Fabian commission on legal aid, which reported more than four years ago. We considered this urgent—as I think the world did—then and for many years before. At one stage, Hillsborough was a classic example which aroused public interest in this issue.

Is there work being done at the moment within the Minister’s department to look urgently at this issue to see whether some solution cannot be found? Never mind the rest of civil legal aid—though my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti knows I agree with her absolutely on that—is there not something that can be done in this area as a matter of some urgency?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, I hope that the Committee will accept my words when I say that the Government are sympathetic to the difficulties facing all bereaved families. At an earlier stage in the consideration of this Bill, my colleague, my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar who has ministerial responsibility for this matter, referred to the powerful feelings he had, as a resident of Liverpool, as the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded. For my part, I speak as one who has acted for a relative of someone killed in an accident which was sufficient to warrant the convening of a fatal accident inquiry in relation to the helicopter crash at the Clutha Vaults public house in Glasgow. I was funded by legal aid, and I hope that means I was at least competent, while at all times striving towards the excellence of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The Government believe that bereaved and otherwise affected families should be at the heart of any inquest and inquiry process that follows a disaster.

Amendments 269 to 274 seek to establish an independent public advocate. This is a call to which the Government have been sympathetic, but I echo the reservations expressed, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, as to whether the superstructure envisaged by the noble and learned Lord’s amendment is the appropriate way forward.

As to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, a moment ago, I can advise the Committee that there is an outstanding consultation dating from 2018. Work is being carried out; whether this is with sufficient urgency to satisfy the noble Lord opposite, I have to leave to him to decide. I hear the remark made about the time which has elapsed since the convening of this consultation, but I can tell the Committee that there have been prioritisation matters concerning resources within the relevant departments arising out of the pandemic.

We must ensure that any independent public advocate does not duplicate or undermine the formal and proper processes that take place following a major disaster such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Manchester Arena terrorist attack. I submit that it will therefore require further detailed work to ensure that any new functions, such as those proposed, are within the wider public interest. They must properly meet a need that inquests and inquiry do not. Conversely, they must not adversely cut across established structures and processes. For these reasons, the Government cannot support these amendments.

In relation to support for bereaved persons, we remain committed to ensuring that those who are bereaved after a major disaster are fully supported. This is why the Government have recently introduced a range of measures: new training for coroners; revised and improved guidance for bereaved families at inquests; addressing the way lawyers conduct themselves at inquests; and increasing access to funding for legal help at inquests. Additionally, the Government have committed up to £4.6 million to the Homicide Service to provide a range of emotional, practical and specialist support for those affected.

The Government have also committed to responding to the report by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, into his review of the experiences of the Hillsborough families, including relating to the duty on public bodies to behave with candour. We are working closely across government and with key stakeholders to consider carefully these “points of learning”, as the Bishop put it. We will publish a response in due course.

As part of recent integrity reforms, the Government have also introduced a duty of co-operation for police officers. This provides clarity on the level of co-operation required of an officer who is a witness in an investigation, inquiry or other formal proceedings. There is a responsibility to participate openly and professionally in a variety of circumstances, including where the officer is a witness in an investigation into the actual, alleged or possible misconduct of other officers—be that an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct or by the police force itself. Failure to meet that duty of candour could ultimately result in disciplinary sanction.

Amendment 323 seeks to introduce publicly funded legal advice and representation for bereaved or injured “interested persons” at an inquest, or for “core participants” at a public inquiry into an “incident or failure” which led to “death or serious injury”. However, there is already an existing statutory process for funding legal representation for certain participants in public inquiries. The Inquiries Act 2005 already gives an inquiry chair the power to award reasonable costs, including the costs of legal representation, to a witness or any person whom the chair considers has an interest in the proceedings or the outcome of the inquiry so as to justify the award. I therefore submit that this element of the proposed amendment is unnecessary.

Moreover, the coroner’s investigation, including the inquest, is an inquisitorial, fact-finding process. It is a narrow-scope inquiry—in a sense, a form of summary justice procedure which sets out to give answers to four statutory questions: who the deceased was, and how, when and where they died. This means that for the vast majority of inquests legal representation and legal aid are not necessary. That is why it is available only in exceptional cases.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45 pm, 22nd November 2021

My Lords, I have given evidence at numerous criminal trials, in the magistrates’ court and the Crown Court, but the most vicious, adversarial cross-examination was at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian shot and killed by the police following the 7 July 2005 bombings. There is no way that process could have been described as inquisitorial. Indeed, part way through that proceeding, the coroner had to advise the barrister representing the police not to proceed in the way that he had up until that point. While in some cases it may be simply a neutral, inquisitorial search for the truth, that is not how a lot of inquests turn out.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving the Committee the benefit of his experience. Perhaps it is that experience which informed, or helped to inform, the remarks of the Chief Coroner, his honour Justice Thomas Teague, who has said publicly that one of his key objectives in his role is to ensure that the inquisitorial ethos of the inquest process is maintained. I hope that demonstrates a resolve within the system to address the failings or, at best, the over-eagerness, of counsel whose conduct the noble Lord described.

The amendment to increase the scope of legal aid at inquests would run counter to the approach of retaining their inquisitorial character. There is a risk that additional lawyers present at an inquest would not provide an overall improvement for the bereaved, that being something which ought to be a primary consideration, for the reasons expressed by my noble friend Lady Newlove. It is foreseeable—I think this is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Sandhurst—that the presence of additional lawyers could have the unintended consequence of turning an inquisitorial process into a complex exercise—

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I do not doubt the sincerity of his concerns about trying to maintain informality in inquisitorial process. However, can it ever be conscionable for an inquest to involve a totally unrepresented core participant or bereaved family in circumstances where those whom the bereaved family suspect of being responsible for their loved one’s death are represented by professional lawyers, counsel and QCs? Can that basic inequality ever be conscionable, not least when we are dealing with lay people, with public concern and with public money that is all going to some parties and not to the bereaved?

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention.

I was going on to say that, for bereaved families who need legal help, advice and assistance are always available under the legal aid scheme, subject to the means and merits test. This can help preparation—

Photo of Baroness Newlove Baroness Newlove Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I take on board what my noble and learned friend says. I come from a victim’s perspective in all this. While it is all rule of law and whatever, victims’ families do not feel any of what my noble and learned friend is saying, because it feels like the professionals are dealing with all the processes. Victims’ families see all these high-end QCs and whether the other person is competent—I think that also gives a two-tier process for the victims’ families. Why should competency be at one end? I take on board what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said. The whole point is that they do not get that advice because there is nobody there to advise them.

I have worked with the Chief Coroner. He has no powers to control coroners across the country. Inquests are so poorly funded that there is no advice for victims in all this. We are missing all the pieces of the jigsaw. I say it with no disrespect, but it does not happen on the ground. Families want respect and dignity. All they see is the other side building all the towers, but not for them. They feel irritated, upset and disrespected. Most importantly, they feel that it is all political window-dressing. Once again, the law does not represent the families, who are the ones who are hurt and traumatised.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, my noble friend’s personal experience and her service as Victims’ Commissioner lend force to her eloquence.

I shall go on to address the funding available for attendance at inquests, but in answer to the points just raised and to reiterate, in the vast majority of inquests the simplicity of the four questions which the coroner is obliged to seek to answer is such that legal representation and legal aid will not be necessary. In circumstances such as those my noble friend described, where there is complexity or where the competing interests are such that lawyers are briefed on behalf of agencies perhaps seeking to lay down defensive positions in the face of future litigation, it is right that there is a mechanism whereby bereaved families or bereaved individuals might be represented.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

I thank the Minister for giving way. He said that it is right that families should be represented, but surely he would acknowledge that that has not been the case, as in the case I cited, as well as in many others where families have not been able to be represented.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Chakrabarti and Lady Newlove, focused on the families being represented and having a voice, but would not the inquisitorial process, which is supposed to arrive at the truth, be improved and more likely to get to the correct conclusion if there was a balance of arms—a balance of forces—as we have been talking about?

I apologise to the Committee: I probably should have declared my position as vice-chair on the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

Ultimately, my Lords, arrival at the truth is the objective of all legal process in this area, but the inquest convened under the coroner is but a part of that overall inquiry. That the truth is the ultimate objective does not, with respect to the noble Baroness’s point, confirm that in every case there must be legal representation. I maintain that for the vast majority of inquests the questions posed—the circumstances—are not such as to oblige in the interests of justice that there be representation for all parties. The amendment to increase the scope of legal aid at inquests would run counter to that approach.

I have addressed the point of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and others about the way in which proceedings of this sort can turn from being inquisitorial into adversarial. I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lady Newlove as to the extent to which the Chief Coroner can control proceedings in every inquest heard by a coroner. None the less, there has to be value in the views of the Chief Coroner, to which I referred—one of his key objectives is to ensure that the inquisitorial ethos of the inquest process is maintained.

For bereaved families who need legal help, advice and assistance is always available, as I said, under the legal aid scheme. That can help with preparation for an inquest, including help with deciding on questions to ask. For legal representation at an inquest, legal aid may be available under the exceptional case funding scheme where certain criteria are met. I have figures on this. The current exceptional case funding grant rate is 79% of applications received. That is the highest on record and demonstrates that the scheme is providing support for those who need it. We are already in the process of making improvements to the scheme, including improvements to guidance which will help bereaved families access this funding where it is needed. Again, I hope that the rehearsal of those figures will offer some comfort to my noble friend.

On the provision of non-means-tested legal aid for bereaved people at inquests, we have recently announced, via the Government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report of its inquiry into the coroner service, that we will be taking forward legislation to remove the means test for applications for exceptional case funding in relation to legal representation at inquests. This change is intended to make the exceptional case funding process as simple and easy as possible for the bereaved.

Given the ongoing work I have referred to, carried out by the Government with the intention of supporting families at inquests and inquiries, I ask the noble and learned Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 5:00 pm, 22nd November 2021

Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I made a mistake earlier in not referring to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, properly. That was my error; I am sorry for it, and I am sure he will forgive me.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

Before the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, replies, I should say that I did not make reference specifically to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in relation to the proposal that he and the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, advanced for the funding of representation in these areas. I will undertake to have the department of my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar look into the response that was made to the proposal which my noble and learned friend and the noble Lord put forward at that time and see if an answer can be given to the Committee at some appropriate stage as to how that was considered and what conclusions were reached.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Advocate-General for Scotland

I am very grateful to everybody who has spoken in the debate. Everybody apart from the Minister supported the principle. There were various specific suggestions as to how the proposal could be improved, which I certainly take on board. As ever, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, put forward an incredibly sensible proposal. Amendment 269 says that if a public authority is designated an “interested person” or a “core participant”, then legal aid should provide funding proportionate to that to the families. I think the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is saying, “Let the relevant interested party or core participant from the public sector pay for it”, and I would not have any objection to that.

I have to say that the Minister’s response was awful—and this is not in any way intended to be an attack on the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, who delivered, as ever, a very careful answer. It was awful because it indicated that the Government are going backwards. It represented a degree of complacency about the problem that was entirely unwarranted. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, very effectively expressed what the problem was. The noble Lord, Lord Beith, indicated, quite rightly, that this problem has existed for a very long time.

The problem was exemplified by the Hillsborough case. The families, having had a very fair hearing from Lord Justice Taylor in the public inquiry, then attended an inquest, day after day, having to cross the Pennines to get there, where they saw the findings of Lord Justice Taylor, as he then was, eroded by representatives of public authorities able to take advantage of their total inequality of arms, aided and abetted by some elements in the press—not all the press, but some elements—which used the process to denigrate those who had died. It was absolutely appalling.

The issue is not just the suffering of the individuals but the disrepute into which it brings our legal system. If our legal system is unable to come to an appropriate answer because of the inequality of arms—all the public authorities are represented by all the lawyers in the world and the families, who have a cause and are right, cannot get their position across—then what good is our legal system? That is the point that everybody in the debate has been talking about, and the Minister’s answer showed absolutely no appreciation whatever that that is the problem.

We will not have another opportunity to come back with something. Amendment 269 and the schedule to be put in after Schedule 20 deals with it by ensuring that where there is a public authority in the firing line, the families should be represented. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, says, but all too often long-running problems with particular health bodies never get properly recognised because ultimately the health body is properly represented and the families are not. We will be back. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 269 withdrawn.

Amendments 270 to 276 not moved.