Legal Aid for Inquests — [Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:51 pm on 10th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Marie Rimmer Marie Rimmer Labour, St Helens South and Whiston 2:51 pm, 10th April 2019

Before I start, may I say that it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Main?

I want to begin by saying how much I empathise with the aim of an inquiry, which is to find the truth of the matter when someone has died whose safety has been entrusted to the Government—truth that, when found, can provide the families of the bereaved with much-needed and sought-after closure; that simply tells them how and why it is that their loved ones are no longer here; and that provides a foundation of understanding about what mistakes may have been made and how we can learn from them to ensure that what happened may never happen again.

Yet what we find in the present system of legal aid is a great barrier to the goals of truth and understanding. The aim of the bereaved families, more than any other party in an inquest, is to ensure that what has happened to their loved ones cannot happen again, and that nobody must again feel the pain of losing somebody they love in the same, preventable way that they did. However, under the present rules, bereaved families are more often than not forced to fund their own legal representation in these inquiries.

Under the current financial eligibility rules, the threshold for receiving legal aid for an inquest is only a gross monthly income of £2,657—a gross income of just under £32,000 per year. Those earning more must pay for rent, food and all the other basic essentials of life, as well as what can be the crippling costs of legal fees in inquiries that can take months, if not years, to complete, as in the case of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, the Morecambe Bay investigation and the Harris review. All those inquiries provided great insight into how the state needed to make changes to protect the lives of those who had been placed into its care. However, those who cannot cover the costs face the prospect of representing themselves in proceedings.

When talking about the Hillsborough disaster, Bishop James Jones described how families who had no public money provided for their legal expenses, or who were self-funded, would be forced to pool their resources. At one of the mini-inquests, one solicitor represented the interests of over 90 families. At the generic inquest, one barrister represented 43 families. One of the families was represented by the mother of the person who had died. What a harrowing experience for a woman who had lost her son to be forced to question witnesses and untangle legal proceedings just to find out what had happened to her child.

Compounding that is the fact that all those other families had no representation whatever. Their voice was stolen away from them because they did not have the financial means to represent themselves. It is simply not right, and it is simply not justice.

When we compare that to the funding that the Government or linked organisations have in these kinds of proceedings, we find that, unlike the bereaved families of those lost, the Government are able to bring the full might of the public purse to bear on these proceedings. On 3 April, the Secretary of State responded to my question about public funding for bereaved families. He stated:

“We must remember that there are ways in which we can be sympathetic to and supportive of bereaved families without ending up in an arms race of who has the most lawyers, the most expensive lawyers and so on”.

If we must use the analogy of an arms race, then at present the Government can spend money on the legal equivalent of tanks, helicopters, fleets and so on, while the families of the bereaved are left with the legal equivalent of a stick. It is all well and good for the Secretary of State to argue that we must not enter an arms race, when the Government sit in the position of power, possessing the finance to bring those legal arms to bear.

The Secretary of State also stated that he was “keen to ensure that” inquests

“continue to be essentially an inquisitorial process, rather than adversarial”.

However, I and many others in this place and beyond would argue that the process is already adversarial. While the nature of the inquest itself is not adversarial, we often find that the Government and other organisations do not fear the judgment of the coroner’s court, but that of the court of public opinion.