Coroner backs legal aid for Birmingham Six inquests

The families of those killed in the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings should have properly funded legal representation at the new inquests into their deaths, a senior coroner said yesterday.

Judge Peter Thornton, QC, who will conduct the hearings into the deaths of 21 people in the IRA bombing of two city centre pubs, said there was “a compelling case for proper legal representation”.

Speaking at a pre-inquest hearing, the coroner said that he wanted the funding issue to be settled by early next year. “I support the applications of those families who wish to participate fully in these inquests by way of legal representation,” the coroner said.

For my part, I fully agree with Judge Peter Thornton QC’s views and also support MP Andy Burnham’s call on the government to adopt a so-called “Hillsborough law” that would give bereaved families the same resources as the police to make their case at future inquests.

There are no more difficult circumstances to cope with than the Inquest into the death of a loved one. Families are left to cope on their own – attempting to ask relevant questions when in a bereaved state. How can families in these circumstances question the might of corporations? This in balance of justice has been allowed to continue for too long and is solely down to penny pinching at the expense of the bereaved.

I recently raised this matter with former Justice Secretary, Michael Gove and received a reply from Shailesh Vara MP, Minister for Courts and Legal Aid saying that inquests “are specifically designed so that people without legal knowledge can participate in and understand the proceedings, without the need for legal representation”.

The Ministry of Justice is naive in thinking an Inquest is non adversarial.

I act in a number of military Inquests, where the MoD will have their solicitors plus a QC and a junior barrister, yet there is no funding available for families. It is not a level playing field. If there is no need for legal representation why does the establishment roll out a team of legal big hitters? Why should government bodies be offered the best legal advice tax payers’ money can buy yet bereaved families are left to struggle alone?

Our legal system is badly letting down bereaved families. Let’s hope this is about to change.

Hilary Meredith