It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock on securing this incredibly important debate. As she has said, access to justice is a fundamental issue. Inquests where families are properly legally represented are important not only for the families’ sakes, but because they perform a wider public service to ensure that lessons are learnt so that things change for other people and so that lives may be saved in future. That is achieved by ventilating the issues in public and putting those potentially responsible for the deaths under proper scrutiny.
If the families are not fully involved to press to ensure that such lessons are learnt, an inquest is far less likely to result in the wider reform and lesson-learning from which we all benefit. It is naive to expect that an inquest in which the family is not legally represented, but in which the agencies of the state are fully represented, will approach an investigation into a death with a genuine desire to uncover failings. On the contrary, state agencies approach inquests with the express objective of, at best, damage limitation and, at worst, to undermine and downplay the concerns of families. I urge the Minister to look at the submission made by Liberty on the review of legal aid eligibility and the exchange that took place between counsel for Surrey police and the father of one of those who died at Deepcut barracks to see probably one of the worst, most callous and distressing lines of questioning imaginable. Although there was legal representation on that occasion, it is concerning to think that a family member could be faced with such cross-examination without any support at all.
I mention Deepcut because in 2002 one of my constituents, Yvonne Heath, tragically lost her son, James Collinson, to gunshot wounds there. She is among four families who have been looking for answers ever since. The other three families have had or are in the middle of inquests, and there is no doubt that it is in the public interest for there to be one into James’s death as well. I understand that the other families have all had to face what has been described to me as a tortuous and intrusive process just to get legal aid granted. It should be absolutely self-evident that the families need representation at the inquests, so I put the Minister on notice that should my constituent face similar obstacles to obtaining legal aid as the previous families have, she can expect regular representations from me until the right thing is done.
I have no doubt about the value that representation can provide at an inquest. I have previously spoken in a debate here about the sad case of Ronald Volante, whose daughter, Rita Cuthell, is a constituent of mine. Ronald died in tragic circumstances when an ambulance call made via a community alarm service led to his call not receiving the priority needed. When the ambulance turned up two hours later, it was too late. We had various meetings following that debate and improvements have been made to procedures, but one area where there has not been any change relates to the experience that my constituent had at the inquest. There is no doubt that she would have benefited enormously from legal representation. I know how distressing and bewildering it was, and how she did not feel that the process gave her the answers that she needed.
If the Minister needs any more persuasion on the importance of the issue, there are many examples of how improvements were made and lessons learned that would not have happened but for the involvement of legally aided, represented families cross-examining witnesses and pressing for change. Such examples include the inquest into the death of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement, who died after reporting rape and bullying in the Army. The inquest led to recommendations that a special kind of victim support be made available to soldiers who complain of sexual assault against other soldiers, as well as improvements in mental health training and procedures. It also led to soldiers being given information about non-military sources of support and help in the aftermath of sexual assault.
The inquest into the death of Sean Benton, who died at Deepcut in 1995, finally revealed the true extent of the abuses and assaults that trainees had suffered at the camp and has led the police to open a criminal investigation. That would not have happened had the family not been legally represented to press for it. The inquest also led to the Army’s undertaking to the coroner that it would ensure that in future all trainee soldiers would be informed that if they were the victim of a criminal offence they could approach the civilian, as opposed to just the military, police. That happened only as a consequence of the family pressing for it at the inquest. I doubt whether it would have happened had they not been legally represented.
A cursory glance at the relevant pages of summaries of inquest findings demonstrates the enormous potential of inquests to identify and learn from failings when people have died where there is state involvement. For example, a jury found that failings in the immigration detention centre system had contributed to the killing of Tarek Chowdhury, and another inquest found serious failures at Sodexo-run HM Prison Peterborough, which contributed to the death of a prisoner, Annabella Landsberg. An inquest found that failings by South West London and St George’s Mental Health Trust had caused the death of Charlotte Ball. Finally, an inquest found there was neglect involved in the death of 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk, which resulted in the coroner making various formal recommendations.
In all those cases the families were legally represented, which demonstrates the enormous public interest and value in ensuring that lessons are learned from the most tragic cases. That can be achieved only if families are represented on an equal footing against state bodies. It is a basic tenet of justice that everyone is equal before the law. When well resourced public bodies are legally represented at inquests it is only right that the bereaved families seeking answers should be represented as well.