Alongside INQUEST, bereaved families and other lawyers, we are calling for:
- Automatic non-means tested legal aid funding for families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.
- Funding equivalent to that enjoyed by state bodies/public authorities and corporate bodies represented.
Here at Hudgell Solicitors we are fully behind our friends at INQUEST in their campaign to level the playing field at inquests. For too long, bereaved families have been at a significant disadvantage as state bodies have unlimited access to public funding, while they are rarely granted any funding.
Earlier this month we saw how the public purse was used at the inquest into former Welsh Cabinet member Carl Sargeant’s death, when former Welsh First Minster Carwyn Jones had his legal fees fully covered by the Welsh government. In contrast, Carl’s grieving family was not entitled to legal aid and Hudgell Solicitors and our instructed counsel acted on a heavily discounted rate, which the family had to fund from their own pockets. Read Neil Hudgell’s blog for more detail.
Unfortunately, what happened at the Sargeant inquest is repeating itself across England & Wales on a daily basis. At a time when families are experiencing the worst time of their lives, instead of being supported, they face a complex and demanding funding application process. Only a ‘lucky’ few get legal aid, but many do not, and face paying large sums towards legal costs.
Some families are even forced to represent themselves, whilst others must appeal to the generosity of strangers through crowdfunding. Regardless of the circumstances of the death, families experience a profound injustice.
As INQUEST say: “Without funded representation, families are denied their voice and meaningful participation in the processes of investigation, learning and accountability. This inequality of arms is an unacceptable curtailing of justice, undermining the preventative potential of inquests, to interrogate the facts and ensure harmful practices are brought to light. Inquests following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth, to expose unsafe practices and abuses of state power. But the reality faced by most families is of multiple expert legal teams defending the interests and reputations of state and corporate bodies – fighting to shut down or narrow lines of enquiry, with a primary focus on damage limitation.”
Whilst there weren’t multiple legal teams at the Sargeant inquest, the practices described above were certainly a feature.
Our wider experience of representing bereaved families at inquests is that as well as establishing what happened to their loved one, a key driver for them is to bring about change so that future deaths can be avoided and to avoid others going through what they have had to. So why should they be forced to fund this themselves when they’re trying to bring about positive change?
This inequality of arms is the most significant injustice in the coronial system. Every review and public inquiry exploring these issues has repeated the urgent need for funding reform. However, in February 2019, the Ministry of Justice published its review into funding for inquests with a rejection of the widespread call for change.
This is not what justice looks like.
Vicky Richardson is a litigation executive at Hudgell Solicitors