Call for Equality of Arms at Inquests for Bereaved FamiliesPublished on: 27 May 2021
A long-awaited report by MPs into the coroner service of England and Wales has recommended that families should be entitled to public funding for legal representation, regardless of how much money they have.
The report follows a review by MPs on the House of Commons Justice Committee into the activities of the coroner service, details of which can be found here.
Presently, public funding for bereaved people to have legal representation at inquests is only available in exceptional cases and depends on how much money a family has. This has often led to concerns in large and complex inquests - such as the inquests into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster where many people were killed in a crowd crush - where public bodies facing criticism are usually represented by legal teams at public expense, but the bereaved families have to fight to receive public funding to be legally represented.
The committee said it was unfair that bereaved people should not have similar representation. Bereaved people, the report said, should not be put through the difficult process of meeting complex legal requirements – and be means-tested for legal aid – when the public authorities they sometimes have to face up to in court are legally represented and funded by the tax-payer. Allowing families an automatic right to have publically funded legal representation at inquests at the most complex inquests will ensure that they can fully participate.
The report also made other recommendations, such as:
the creation of a national coronial service for England and Wales;
to invest in pathology services to ensure there coroners can access the pathology services they need;
for an inspectorate for that service to ensure consistent standards; and
for a charter of rights for bereaved people.
These recommendations are a welcome acknowledgment of the problems that bereaved families have faced for many years. For too long, there has been criticism that public bodies can “lawyer-up” to defend themselves at inquests, whilst families often have to fund lawyers privately at great expense, or go it alone at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. The Ministry of Justice should therefore act now to ensure that the committee’s recommendations are put into effect with minimal delay.