Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede
25: After Clause 44, insert the following new Clause—“Publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people at inquests (1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1), after “(4)” insert “or (7).”(3) After subsection (6), insert—“(7) This subsection is satisfied where—(a) the services consist of advocacy at an inquest where the individual is an interested person pursuant to section 47(2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship to the deceased, and(b) one or more public authorities are interested persons in relation to the inquest pursuant to section 47(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or are likely to be designated as such.(8) For the purposes of this section “public authority” has the meaning given by section 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998.””Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would ensure that bereaved people (such as family members) are entitled to publicly funded legal representation in inquests where public bodies (such as the police or a hospital trust) are legally represented.
My Lords, this group of amendments is about legal aid provision for bereaved people in inquests. The new clause introduced by Amendment 25 would ensure that bereaved people, such as family members, are entitled to publicly funded legal representation in inquests, where public bodies such as the police or a hospital trust are legally represented. The new clause introduced by Amendment 26 would remove the means test for legal aid applications for legal help for bereaved people at inquests. The new clause introduced by Amendment 27 would bring the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 into line with the definition of “family” used in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
This is a very important group of amendments and it is my intention to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 25. As Inquest and others have warned, the new coroners’ provisions contained in this Bill could exacerbate the difficulties already faced by bereaved families who are not eligible for legal aid during the inquest process. It is therefore more imperative than ever that an amendment be accepted to finally introduce equality of arms to inquests and provide automatic, non-means-tested public funding for bereaved families and people where the state is an interested person.
The current funding scheme allows state bodies unlimited access to public funds for the best legal teams and experts, while families often face a complex and demanding funding application process. Many are forced to pay large sums of money towards legal costs or represent themselves during this process; others use crowdfunding. The Bill represents a timely opportunity to positively shape the inquest system for bereaved people by establishing in law the principle of equality of arms between families and public authority interested persons. It is no longer conscionable to continue to deny bereaved families publicly funded legal representation where public bodies are legally represented. It is a very simple point, which has been made in numerous previous Bills. We have an opportunity here. I beg to move Amendment 25.
My Lords, I do not think that the Government should hide behind the fact that an inquest is inquisitorial in procedure and not adversarial—that is a myth. It is not the case that there are no adversarial proceedings at an inquest. I have been in many inquests for trade unions, insurers and families, and each side tries to put forward a particular view of the facts which may impact considerably on questions of liability arising in civil proceedings later. I have nothing more to say, except that this amendment is limited to public bodies. I wish it was extended to more than public bodies and to any situation where a coroner faces a heavily weaponised side arguing one way and the family on the other. At that point, legal aid should be easily available to those who are disadvantaged.
My Lords, as the Minister said a short while ago, this is a very ancient office, but the genius of our system, and of the coronial system, is that it has moved and adapted itself over the centuries. Over the last 20 or so years, inquests have changed beyond all recognition. The amount of money and resource now devoted to them, and what the public expect from them, is enormous. It cannot be right that, where the state is involved and has heavy representation, the bereaved family is not also provided for by the state. The coroner cannot remedy that. It is a myth to say that he can do this through his inquisitorial powers; that is simply not possible when you need expert and other evidence, and trained lawyers. I very much hope that the Government will seriously consider this. It is a very modest amendment and I warmly support it.
I rise not to add any contribution on the legal side of things but just to add a little moral outrage, because this is an injustice. We all understand, I think, that the lack of public funding for bereaved families at inquests and inquiries just compounds their suffering. It is also very inefficient, because the point of having competent lawyers in court is that they can assist the court in the administration of justice. They can navigate complex issues of fact and law, which means that a just decision can be reached. It also provides the public with a huge service, because we all have to have confidence in the state to keep us safe in its custody and control.
I admit that it is hard when we have a Government such as this, but even so, I think we all understand that every death in police custody, prisons, mental health institutions or any other setting must be fully exposed through the inquest system, and this cannot be done without legal representation for bereaved parties. Without public funding it is actually a tax on bereaved families. It is time for your Lordships’ House to end this injustice by convincing the Government that they have to allow this amendment through.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I am conscious that the fact that the debate has been relatively short is not a reflection of the importance of the issue. On the contrary, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said, this is a long-running issue. It is not quite as long- running as the coronial office, but it has been before the House before and doubtless it will be again.
I start by assuring the House that the Government believe that bereaved families should be at the heart of any inquest process, but we consider that, although there are some exceptions, which I will come to, legal representation and legal aid are not required for the vast majority of inquests. As I said on the previous group, the coroner’s investigation is a relatively narrow-scope inquiry to determine who the deceased was and how, when and where they died. In my meeting with Inquest last week, we obviously discussed the availability of legal aid for inquests. Again, I should put on record that although there are undoubtedly areas where Inquest would like the Government to go further, we had a productive and useful conversation.
Amendments 25, 26 and 27 all seek to expand access to legal aid at inquests. However, the amendments would also make that access to legal aid entirely non-means-tested. That would lead to significant and potentially open-ended cost to the taxpayer. It would also go against the principle of targeting legal aid at those who need it most, because these amendments would provide public funding for those who could, in fact, afford the cost themselves. Over and above that, I am not persuaded, with respect to my former and current colleagues, that having more lawyers at an inquest will provide an improved experience for the bereaved. Indeed, it could have the unintended consequence of turning an inquisitorial event into a complex defensive case, which would likely prolong the distress of bereaved families.
We do, of course, recognise that bereaved families need support and guidance. We have been working on several measures to make inquests more sympathetic to the needs of bereaved people. That includes publishing new guidance on the coroner service for bereaved families, engaging with the chief coroner on training for coroners and developing a protocol. I think this goes to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that, where the state is represented, the protocol now is that the state will consider the number of lawyers instructed, so as to support the underlying inquisitorial approach to inquests.
I turn to the availability of legal aid. First, legal help is available under the legal aid scheme, subject to a means and merits test, which bereaved families can access if they require advice and assistance. Further, where certain criteria are met, legal aid for legal representation may be available under the exceptional case funding scheme. Where these criteria are met, we are of the view that that process should be as straightforward as possible. Therefore, as of January this year, there is no means test for an exceptional case funding application in relation to representation at an inquest or for legal help at an inquest where representation is granted.
Thirdly, we considered our approach to initial access to legal help at inquests in our recently published Legal Aid Means Test Review. This is something of an intimidating document, but I invite interested noble Lords to have a look at it. There, we have proposed to remove the means test for legal help in relation to inquests which relate to a possible breach of rights under the ECHR—it is generally Article 2, but not exclusively—or where there is likely to be significant wider public interest in the individual being represented at the inquest. We published that review on
For those reasons, which go both to the nature of the inquest and what the Government are currently doing in this area, I invite the noble Lord who is proposing the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, to withdraw them.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and have supported these amendments. The opening line from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, was that the Government should not hide behind the inquisitorial defence, if I can put it like that, and that is exactly what we have heard from the Minister today.
He chided me for limiting the amendments to public bodies. I accept that criticism to a certain extent; nevertheless, this is an opportunity for a radical improvement of the inquest system to provide a genuine public service. I absolutely agree with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, about the importance of public service, and this is a route to do that to the benefit of people in a distressed situation.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, gave a historical perspective, if I can use that expression, saying that coroners have changed and adapted over the years. Here is another opportunity to change and adapt for the public good. I think that if the Government are not willing to make that change, I would like to test the opinion of the House on Amendment 25.
Ayes 136, Noes 112.