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Changes to Legal Aid For Bereaved Families Are Necessary But Will They Happen?

Solicitors in London

Changes to Legal Aid For Bereaved Families Are Necessary But Will They Happen?

News article published on: 15th October 2018

The family of Police Constable Keith Palmer who was killed in the London Bridge terror attack, is calling for urgent changes to the Legal Aid system, after they had to secure pro bono representation for the inquest into his death. Their application for financial assistance had not been finalised by the Legal Aid Agency before the inquest started and is currently still being processed.

The family’s plight has raised the profile of this problem with legal assistance for families attending inquests, a problem which unfortunately has been long-standing.

Similar Cases: Families and Inquests

In March this year, the family of Connor Sparrowhawk who died while under the care of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, shared their concerns that Legal Aid should be made available for those fighting court battles against larger, well-funded authorities.

Like Keith Palmer’s family, the Sparrowhawks relied on lawyers providing free legal expertise, while the Trust could afford to fund seven barristers to work on their own behalf.

As reported in the Belfast Telegraph, another family of a man who died in police custody in South London, said of the inquest into his death, ‘We had six or seven barristers (against us) […] all with full legal teams, all publicly-funded while the family, who are really the injured party, are expected to fund themselves’.

The most recent case that highlights this problem was reported today in the Guardian. The family of student Natasha Abrahart who committed suicide in April 2018, need more than £50,000 to pay for lawyers that can stand toe-to-toe with the barristers who are representing Natasha’s University at the inquest into her death.

Her parents are unlikely to receive Legal Aid, but they believe that if they do not have their own legal representation, the inquest will not be a ‘level playing field’.

They have reluctantly resorted to crowdfunding to raise the money they need.

Dissention over the Years

The executive director of Inquest, a charity which provides support on state related death investigations, said, ‘It is unacceptable that bereaved families are forced to crowdfund and rely on the generosity of others, while state parties have unlimited access to the best legal teams and experts paid for by the public purse’.

It seems that various government departments agree that something should be done and have done so for some time now.

In his Annual Report 2016-217 to the Lord Chancellor, Chief Coroner of England and Wales, His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft Q.C. addressed this issue. He recommended that the Lord Chancellor, ‘gives consideration to amending the Exceptional Funding Guidance (Inquests) to provide exception funding for legal representation for the family where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested persons’.

He based his recommendations on the instance where the family of the deceased wish to have legal representation but cannot fund it themselves and are unable to obtain Legal Aid.

Dame Eilish Angiolini Q.C.

Then, as reported in the Guardian, in 2017 Dame Angiolini published a report on behalf of the Home Office, recommending that there should be automatic funding for legal representation, with no means-testing, for families where state agencies had been involved in a death.

Recognising that this could take time to filter through various reviews and committees, Dame Angiolini also recommended that interim measures should be installed ‘to speed up the official response’. She added, ‘the state is able to equip itself with very expensive lawyers, but families often rely on the coroner to ask questions. The difficulty is that [in doing so] coroners may appear to lose their impartiality’.

She also denounced the ‘terrible spectacle of families dealing with trauma and struggling on their own, or with a junior pro-bono Lawyer, against several, experienced Q.C.s acting on behalf of the state’.

In addition to these official reports, just recently, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published another paper that recommended that non-means tested funding should be made available for legal representation at inquests, ‘where the state has separate representation’.

Government Response: Finally?

The Ministry of Justice plans an investigation into the current Legal Aid system, to take stock of the current position and to identify areas that may be improved.

As part of this investigation, they launched an online consultation, to ‘better understand the circumstances in which families may require legal representation to allow for a fair inquest process, and whether changes need to be made to current eligibility criteria’.

The call for online evidence ran between July and August this year and in light of any supporting facts, the Ministry stipulates that it will ‘consider possible changes to our existing policies’. Nothing much is expected before Spring 2019 and this will be little comfort to those families who have to attend inquests in the interim period.

At Osbornes Law we care about how you are treated both by medical professionals at your GP surgery or at hospital and also under the care of private providers of health services. If you think that the care you or a loved one has received fell below the standards expected of a reasonably competent professional, then please do not hesitate to contact Partner and specialist medical negligence lawyer Stephanie Prior on 020 7681 8671. You can also fill out an online enquiry form here.

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