Earlier this month, the Government published what was, for many bereaved families and campaigners, a long awaited report on legal aid for inquests. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had committed to carrying out a review in response to widespread calls for changes to the current availability of legal aid for bereaved families. These calls came not only from those who had themselves suffered at the hands of the current system, but from no fewer than 15 independent reviews and reports in the past 20 years, including the Corston, Harris, Angiolini and Hillsborough Reviews.
As part of the MoJ’s review, families, lawyers and campaigning organisations such as INQUEST were given the opportunity to present the case for increased provision of legal aid and to argue that funding should be available without the need for means testing in all inquests where the state’s investigative obligation under Article 2 ECHR is engaged. Many families told of the impact which the inequality of arms in Inquests and the often traumatic process of means testing for legal aid had on them. In the report’s own words, it was the “culmination of a thorough and wide-ranging review” undertaken by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) over the past year. As such, the report was eagerly awaited by families and campaigners.
When it arrived, however, it came as a bitter blow to many of those who had invested time and effort in responding to the MoJ’s call for evidence. The report rejected calls for the provision of non-means tested legal aid and made only very limited commitments to change the current system. It stated that the “evidence suggests that the current system might not be fully understood”.
Deborah Coles, Executive Director of the INQUEST, described the report as “a dishonest response and a betrayal of those who invested in this review in the hope of securing meaningful change.”
However, the fight goes on. Yesterday marked the launch of a fresh campaign by INQUEST entitled “Now or never! Legal Aid for Inquests”. At its launch event in Parliament yesterday, the sense of anger and frustration among bereaved families and campaigners was palpable. Powerful testimony was provided by many who have first hand experience of the uneven playing field at Inquests into state-related deaths. Their stories were heard on behalf of the MoJ by Lucy Frazer QC MP, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice. However, her response failed substantively to address the concerns being raised by families, focusing instead on the provision of guidance and the possibility of working with other government departments to facilitate the provision of legal support at Inquests. It illustrated the uphill battle which campaigners continue to face, in spite of the significant support of many members of both Houses of Parliament who were also in attendance.
If you would like to support INQUEST’s campaign, you can sign its petition. It calls for automatic non-means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state-related death, and for funding equivalent to that enjoyed by state bodies represented.
You can read the MoJ’s report on the review of Legal Aid at inquest in full, and INQUEST’s full briefing in support of its Now or Never campaign.