Legal Aid: Birmingham Pub Bombings

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 27th March 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 4:30 pm, 27th March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered legal aid for families of the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This debate follows on from an Adjournment debate in October 2016 led by my hon. Friend Jess Phillips. What I am going to say has the support of every single Birmingham MP, irrespective of party, and has wide support across the House, as I think will be demonstrated by the contributions we will hear.

At around 8.20 pm on 21 November 1974, two explosions rocked two pubs in Birmingham: the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. Twenty-one people were killed and some 222 people were injured. A third bomb placed at Barclays bank on Hagley Road was defused the same evening. We know that six men were jailed for that atrocity, and we now know that that was a miscarriage of justice. It took years for that to be addressed and for those six innocent men to be finally released.

There was, however, to be no release for the families of the 21 who died and the hundreds who were left with injuries and the trauma of that night in November 1974, because nobody has been brought to justice for those 21 murders. There remain big unanswered questions about what exactly happened that night, including the circumstances surrounding the plantings of the bombs, if and how warnings were given and how the police reacted that night and subsequently. Some of those family members are watching our debate, and I am sure all Members would wish to join me in welcoming them to this place and in paying tribute to their tenacity over so many years in trying to get the answers they deserve.

For years, those families have had to overcome hurdle after hurdle in pursuit of justice and to get answers. They had to fight to get the inquest into the pub bombings reopened in the first place. They then had to fight to be granted legal aid to be legally represented at that inquest. Now, having eventually won those battles, they have once again been denied legal aid for a Court of Appeal hearing on the rules governing that self-same inquest. Why is that? Last year, the Chief Coroner, Sir Peter Thornton QC, ruled that the people suspected of carrying out the pub bombings cannot be identified at the inquest. The families disagreed and took their case to the High Court. They won, and the coroner was directed to review the ruling he had made on the identification of suspects. We now know that the coroner has responded by applying for leave to take the case to the Court of Appeal, as he has every right to do. The fact that different conclusions were reached by the High Court and the coroner himself—he is a senior QC—underlines the difficult and complex legal issues that the case raises.

Today’s debate is emphatically not about taking sides on whether suspects should be identified at the inquest—that is properly a matter that should be decided by the courts—but about whether both sides should have an equal opportunity to put their case to the court. However, as things stand, that equality is missing in practice, because although public funds will rightly be available to present the coroner’s appeal against the High Court’s judgement, the families have been told that they have to pay for their own legal representation to defend the High Court’s decision. That is the disparity I am asking the Minister to address today.

The disparity was not addressed when the case was at the High Court. The families were refused legal aid at that stage and were only able to fight and win their case there by the generosity that ordinary citizens showed in response to their crowdfunding appeal. The families should not have to go through that again at the Court of Appeal. It is in the public interest that all the arguments for and against the identification of suspects at the inquest are heard by the Court of Appeal so that it can make its decision on the merits of the case with confidence that a shortage of resource has not hampered either side from putting forward their cases.

It is not only Members and the families who are asking for the situation to be rectified. The coroner himself has said that public funding should be made available to the families so that legal representation can be secured for them to contest the case he is taking to the Court of Appeal.