It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate Stephanie Peacock on securing a debate on this important subject. She spoke passionately about the issue, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond.
Last Friday I had the opportunity to visit Westminster coroner’s court to watch an inquest. I saw first hand the professionalism of the coroner and the importance of the inquest process to the bereaved family. Before turning to the individual points that have been made in this debate, I would like to set out some facts in relation to the inquest process, the purpose of an inquest and what we have done to improve that process. I would also like to mention some of the types of cases that inquests deal with, which we have heard about throughout the debate, and to respond to the points that have been made in relation to legal aid. I would like to do that, because it is important to understand the process and how legal aid fits into it.
The starting point is, what is the purpose of an inquest? An inquest is an investigation by a coroner into a death reported to them, and it should answer four questions: what is the identity of the deceased, what is the place of death, what is the time of death, and how did the deceased person come to his or her death? An inquest is a public court hearing to determine those matters.
As my hon. Friend Victoria Prentis said—as we heard, she has considerable experience of these issues—an inquest is meant to be an inquisitorial process, not an adversarial one. Bereaved families have a special status in any inquest. They do not have to make legal arguments, but they can question witnesses, or ask coroners to question them on their behalf. Inquests are essentially about fact finding.
At the inquest I saw on Friday, a man had either taken his own life or died from natural causes. The family were given every opportunity to question the toxicologist and the doctor present. There was no legal representation on either side, and at the end of the inquest the father of the deceased thanked the coroner for her findings and commented that she could not have done much more.
As with all legal processes, we can make room for improvement. Andy Slaughter suggested that not everyone who appears at an inquest—for example, coroners or legal representatives —always behaves as they should. We have sought to improve the experience of bereaved families who go through this process at such a tragic time, and I wish to highlight some of the changes that we have made or are making.
First, we are in the process of revising the information we give families on coronial processes, to ensure that it is tailored to them. We have re-established a stakeholder forum to engage with other Departments and external stakeholders and to consider what more can be done to ensure that the process is inquisitorial, as it should be. Our reforms allow bereaved families access to most documents seen by the court, and they should expect the coroner’s office to update them at regular intervals and explain each stage of the process. We have also introduced the role of Chief Coroner, who provides leadership, guidance and support to coroners, and we have engaged with him on training for coroners and their officers, which will be delivered in 2019-20.
As we have heard, many types of inquest come before coroners. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton mentioned stillbirths and the tragedy in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke of her experience in a number of matters, and Justin Madders mentioned some terrible stories. Ruth George told us of the experience of someone in her constituency. At the inquest last week, a number of cases were opened at the start of the hearing. They involved men who had died—some had taken their own lives, some cases involved drugs, and some were in foreign countries.
None of those cases involved the state. Other cases do involve the state, however, and there is a question over whether the state or its agents were responsible. Those are known as article 2 inquest cases, in reference to the state duty to protect life under article 2 of the European convention on human rights. In those cases an enhanced investigation must decide not only who died, when, where and how, but the broader circumstances of their death.
As hon. Members have suggested, it is likely in such circumstances that the state will be represented. Bereaved families may require representation, and legal aid for that may be available through the exceptional case funding scheme—my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned that, as did Gloria De Piero.
Legal aid for representation through the ECF scheme may be provided where failure to provide representation would amount to, or risk, a breach of article 2, or where there is a wider public interest. In the last two years, 339 applications for publicly funded representation at an inquest were granted, and we have taken a number of measures to ensure that ECF funding is more easily granted.
As Jim Shannon mentioned, most people who apply for legal aid generally in civil law have to satisfy a means and merits threshold. That is to ensure that public money is well spent. Those who do not merit legal aid should not get it, and those who can afford to pay themselves should do so. We have recently made it easier in two ways to obtain legal aid. First, we have made changes to ensure that there is a presumption that the article 2 threshold is satisfied in cases where there is a death in state custody. Secondly, we have relaxed the means test.
Alex Sobel mentioned the stress of filling in the form at a difficult time. In June, we updated the Lord Chancellor’s guidance so that the Legal Aid Agency can disregard the means test and take into account the stress that the family are going through, which may be exacerbated by the legal aid process. Furthermore, only the individual applicant’s financial means will be tested, and not the means of family members, which will help to ease the burden of the application process.
As the hon. Members for Barnsley East and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned, the process is complicated. In February, we identified that we will do a wider review of legal aid. We have committed to simplifying the exceptional case funding forms and guidance to ensure that applying for legal aid is as simple as possible. We will put more money into resourcing that to ensure that funding decisions by the Legal Aid Agency are made in as timely a manner as possible.