It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to respond on such an important issue in such an important debate, and I congratulate Richard Burden on securing it. He has been very active in supporting his constituents and in making representations to the Legal Aid Agency, as Jess Phillips has been in raising the profile more broadly. Like them, I welcome the families to Westminster today.
I understand why there is such strength of feeling on the subject from hon. Members on all sides. I have the deepest sympathies with the families and friends of those who were injured or lost their lives in the terrible atrocities that took place in Birmingham in 1974. I cannot imagine what they have been through. I understand the inquest plays a crucial part in the investigations that continue, and I appreciate that it plays an important role in enabling families to understand and make sense of what happened to their loved ones.
Much of the debate has focused on legal aid. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield asked me to explain how legal aid differs in the various types of cases for which it can be granted in relation to an inquest. It is therefore important to identify the types of assistance that can be granted and have been sought in this case.
The Ministry of Justice acknowledges that, in certain cases, legal aid in the lead-up to an inquest may be required, and has ensured that early legal advice for inquests is available under legal aid for those who are eligible. I understand that such legal aid was sought and granted in this case. Next is the issue of legal aid for representation at the hearing itself. An inquest should be an inquisitorial process that focuses on establishing the facts of death. It should not really be an adversarial hearing, and should be conducted in a very different way from a court proceeding. Participants do not always need to present legal arguments and so, in most inquest hearings, the bereaved family do not need representation to participate in the process. Most inquest hearings are conducted without the need for publicly funded representation.
Having said that, publicly funded representation may be needed in certain circumstances and is then sought. Legal aid is available for legal representation at inquests under the exceptional case funding scheme. Legal aid is awarded through that scheme on a case-by-case basis. In deciding whether funded representation may be necessary, the Legal Aid Agency considers all the relevant individual facts and circumstances of the case, which usually include the particular circumstances of the family. Legal aid for representation at inquests is subject to means and merits tests. In such circumstances, means can be waived.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield highlighted, the families have previously received publicly funded legal representation for the inquests on this matter.