Why I agree with the Chief coroner’s call for legal aid provision in state-involved inquests

Legal aid should be provided for families at inquests in which the government pays for lawyers to represent police officers or other state employees, the chief coroner has recommended.

In wide-ranging interview with The Guardian, soon-to-retire Peter Thornton QC says bereaved families are entitled to ‘equality of arms’.

In the interview, before the release of his annual report and his retirement, Peter Thornton QC said: “There are cases where legal aid should, if possible, be made available for families, particularly where one or more organs of the state are represented.”

In the aftermath of the reopened Hillsborough inquest and with the resumption of the inquest into the Birmingham pub bombings, the question of whether relatives of victims need legal support to help them discover the truth has become an urgent issue.

This week both Conservative and Labour MPs in the Midlands backed requests to provide legal assistance to relatives of the 21 people who died when the IRA bombed the Tavern in the Town and the Mulberry Bush pubs in Birmingham in November 1974. In recent years the Ministry of Justice has severely restricted access to legal aid as part of its austerity programme.

For my part, I fully agree with 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. Following the Chief Coroner’s comments, let’s hope this is about to change.

Hilary Meredith