Obtaining legal representation at an inquest can be the most effective way for a bereaved family to get answers to the questions they have, and to try to assess the prospects of a possible claim. However, many families cannot afford such representation. The chief coroner, Peter Thornton QC, has now recommended that:
"if the government is paying for lawyers to represent state employees at an inquest, then legal aid should be provided for families so that they can be represented too"
The current position
Legal aid for inquests is severely limited. If a family member of the deceased meets strict financial criteria, it may be possible to get legal aid to help prepare for an inquest. However, the cost of representation at the inquest itself will only be met in 'exceptional' cases. For a case to be 'exceptional', you must show that there is a significant wider public interest, or that representation is necessary for an effective investigation into the death.
Calls for change
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the chief coroner recommended that legal aid should be available to families at inquests in which the government is paying for police officers or other state employees to be represented. Cases involving a fatality in police custody, for example, often involve several officers with government-paid barristers appearing on their behalf. Thornton argued that when confronting such high-powered representation, families should be granted exceptional funding for legal aid. He said:
“It’s partly a question of equality of arms and also helps the coroner who might otherwise be bending over backwards to help the family and might give the appearance of going too far.”
It has long been argued that legal aid should be available for representation at inquests. Good legal support can be vital to help families discover the truth, and this is particularly apparent in the wake of the recent Hillsborough inquest. Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham has welcomed Thornton's remarks, and hopes his recommendations will strengthen Labour's campaign for a so called 'Hillsborough Law’. This proposal aims to give bereaved families the same resources as the police to make their case at future inquests.
Although Labour's campaign focuses on inquests involving the police, it could be argued that the same principle applies to inquests involving possible medical negligence. If an NHS Trust, a government body, is paying for legal representation for its employees, then legal aid should perhaps be more readily available for families to put them on an equal footing.