In an interview given to the Guardian Newspaper earlier this year the now retired Chief Coroner of England and Wales, Peter Thornton QC, called for legal aid to be provided to families for representation at inquests where the state is involved and has legal representation.
The interview took place in the run up to the release of the Chief Coroners Annual Report which was published on 8 September 2016. The report itself highlights the inequality of arms which can exist for families in such cases stating:
“In some cases one or more agencies of the state such as the police, the prison service and ambulance service, may be separately represented…While all of these individuals and agencies may be legally represented with funding from the state, the state may provide no funding for representation for the family.”
Funding for representation at an inquest is not generally available to family members of a deceased relative. The basis for this is that an inquest is viewed as a relatively informal inquisitorial process, rather than an adversarial one. However, as suggested by the report, public bodies almost always have their own legal representation at inquests they are involved in. Families therefore, without representation and without a detailed knowledge of the inquest process and many of the issues being considered are at a considerable disadvantage.
Deborah Cox, director of the Charity INQUEST commented on this specific issue in 2015 stating;
“The government perpetuates the myth that inquests into deaths in state care or custody are informal hearings where grieving families can be expected to represent themselves, and yet these are complex inquests where they come face to face with state lawyers paid by public funds, there to defend their policies and practices”.
The Chief Coroner, within his report sought to remedy this inequality by recommending that the Lord Chancellor consider amending the provisions around funding for legal representation for a family at inquests “where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested persons”.
To date, this recommendation has not been followed.
The former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Reverend James Jones, has been asked to provide a report to the government detailing the experiences of the families of those killed in the Hillsborough disaster. It has been suggested that one of the issues this report will seek to address is that of the availability of funding for families at inquests.
It is not currently known when this report will be completed and therefore in the meantime it appears that the inequality for grieving families will remain.
As recently as the 2nd of November 2016, during a House of Lords Debate on the Policing and Crime Bill, an amendment to provide families with “parity of legal funding” in inquests following a death in the care of the state was proposed but subsequently withdrawn.
If you have lost a loved one and are involved in an Inquest we at Freemans would be happy to discuss this with you further and provide any assistance we can. Please call one of our solicitors today on 0191 222 1030 for a free consultation or complete our website enquiry form.