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Victims’ Commissioner calls for legal aid for inquests

Grant bereaved families automatic non means-tested funding for legal representation following state related deaths, says Victims' Commissioner.

The Victims’ Commissioner has written to the Lord Chancellor to call for a review into the funding of legal representation at inquests following state-related deaths.

Dame Vera Baird is working on this issue in conjunction with Rt Rev Sir James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, who led the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the charities JUSTICE and INQUEST.

In the letter, Dame Vera outlines her desire for bereaved families to have access to free legal representation, whilst also placing limits on the expenditure of the public authorities. Dame Vera said: “The desired outcome should be to give these families access to justice and ensure parity whilst incurring no additional cost to the exchequer.”

The Victims’ Commissioner asks for the review to cover all cases where someone has died in the custody or care of public authorities, or where a public authority is involved in the circumstances of the death.

Currently, state bodies are unrestricted in their funding and level of representation at inquests, while bereaved families are denied public funding for representation themselves.

Dame Vera said: “As taxpayers, these families are likely to be contributing to funding the legal representation of public bodies who may hold some responsibility for their loved ones’ death, yet they are being denied public funding for representation for themselves.”

In the letter, Dame Vera outlines the types of cases which would fall within the scope of this review. These would be where the role or responsibilities of public authorities are relevant to exploring how a death happened.

For example, she says, this would include a terror attack, the handling of a public safety incident, such as Hillsborough, or the case might involve a single death in a mental health setting. “Such cases often form part of a wider narrative, in which “systemic patterns of failure” are an evident cause or factor,” Dame Vera writes.

The Victims’ Commissioner says that families go through the inquest process in the hope that they will get answers and acknowledgement of what went wrong. Yet this hope is often frustrated by a culture of “institutional defensiveness” from many public agencies, she says, who are more focused on reputational management than a meaningful search for the truth.

Dame Vera notes the Government’s commitment to ensuring that victims of crime are given every assistance to ‘cope and recover’ from what has happened to them. However, Dame Vera observes, “in order to ‘cope and recover’ from the death of a loved one, it is well established that the bereaved need to know and to understand how their loved one met their death and to have all their questions answered and their doubts met.”

The Victims’ Commissioner outlines two demands: that the State whose agencies are involved in the inquest should supply funding to provide for families to be represented, where they wish to be; and that families should have access to legal funding for lawyers of their choice on a similar scale to that of the relevant State authority.

“There is a need for this imbalance to be addressed, “a level playing field” to be provided and the human rights concept of “equality of arms” to be made available,” Dame Vera writes.

She includes two suggestions to address the discrepancy in funding between state and the families of victims: the establishment of a separate and specific fund with its own criteria; and a requirement for public authorities to match their own expenditure in a particular case with making an equivalent contribution to the family’s costs.

The letter was sent to Ministers on 22 April 2021.

Read the letter online.