Funding disparity over legal representation proves inquests are not a level playing field

A huge funding disparity over legal representation at Inquests has been uncovered by a campaign charity.
Figures released by the charity Inquest reveal that, in 2017, the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2m on legal representation for the prison and probation service. Families on the other hand received £92,000 through the Legal Aid Agency’s exceptional funding scheme.
Inquest says the £4.2m is a partial figure of the total spent on representing state and corporate bodies at Inquests, as private prison and healthcare providers, NHS and other agencies are often separately represented.
The figures are based on a freedom of information request and information revealed in a parliamentary answer to shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon.
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 the Government? 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.
A couple of years ago, I raised with matter directly with the Justice Secretary and received a reply 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.
We 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. Why should government bodies be offered the best legal advice tax payers’ money can buy yet bereaved families are left to struggle alone? If there is no need for legal representation why does the establishment roll out a team of legal big hitters? It is simply not a level playing field.
Military inquests in particular have become a specialist area. There are so many issues to address – disclosure of documents, joint service procedure memos, witness statements – the list goes on and on. As well as the military terminology, the Human Rights element and past case law add another a layer of complexity. Even if military families can find a lawyer willing to act on a Pro Bono basis, there are very few with the necessary skills and experience.
Our legal system is badly letting down bereaved families and I full support calls for the government to reconsider its decision not to introduce automatic public funding for bereaved families in cases where the state is represented.
Hilary Meredith