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Legal aid for inquests: campaign launched

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INQUEST, #LegalAidForInquests, campaign launch, petition, non means tested legal aid funding families, state-related death The Ministry of Justice has ‘disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families.’

Following the decision by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to reject widely-supported proposals and overwhelming evidence for fair legal funding for bereaved people, rights groups, bereaved families and INQUEST have launched a campaign ‘Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests’ calling for action in parliament.

Whether it is the death of a child in a mental health setting, a prisoner who has taken their life, or a death as a result of neglect by state services, families need answers – and assurances that everything is being done to stop similar deaths in the future.

But there is an unjust power imbalance between bereaved families – who have to fight tooth and nail for funding for legal representation – and State bodies – who have automatic access to taxpayer’s money for expert legal teams.

Which means that State bodies and representatives have unlimited access to public funding for the best legal teams and experts, but at a time when they are grieving and at their most vulnerable, families face complex and demanding funding application processes.

Some are lucky and get legal aid, but many do not, or face paying large sums towards legal costs. Some are forced to represent themselves, while others have to appeal to the generosity of strangers through crowdfunding.

This inequality 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, and 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.

More than any other party, the overriding objective of bereaved families is to bring about changes to prevent future deaths, to stop others going through what they have faced.

And our public interest is served by their actions and the changes they bring about.

This inequality is the most significant injustice in the coronial system.

Bereaved families must be granted automatic non means tested funding for legal representation following state related deaths.

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 and a rejection of the widespread call for change.

This is not what justice looks like.  

INQUEST, bereaved families and lawyers have now launched a campaign calling for:

1 – Automatic non means tested legal aid funding to families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.

2 – Funding equivalent to that enjoyed by state bodies/public authorities and corporate bodies represented.

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “The power imbalance between bereaved families and the state is the most significant injustice of the coronial process.

“Removing the barriers to accessing legal representation will not only create a fairer and more just inquest system, it will protect lives.

“Every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed.

“Yet the Ministry of Justice have disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families.

“INQUEST and the families we work with refuse to be silenced. We call on the government to act now and urgently introduce fair public funding for legal representation at inquests, to end this unequal playing field.”

To learn more about the experiences of families fighting for funding, click here.

To sign INQUEST’s petition, click here.

In addition to the individual signatories this INQUEST campaign is formally supported by Liberty, Grenfell United, Mind, The Bar Council, Cruse Bereavement Care, Legal Action Group, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, AvMA, Runnymede Trust, Criminal Justice Alliance, Operation Black Vote, Article 39, the Institute for Race Relations and INQUEST Lawyers Group.

And Labour has pledged to provide automatic legal aid funding for the bereaved at inquests where a relative has died under the control of state agencies, such as in prison or a police station.

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