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 neglectful state services, families need answers and assurances that everything is being done to stop similar deaths in the future. Despite this, access to justice is hindered by an unjust power imbalance between bereaved families, who fight tooth and nail for funding for legal representation, and state bodies, which have automatic access to taxpayers’ money for expert legal teams.
On 26 February 2019, INQUEST launched our family-led Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests
campaign in parliament and opened a petition
calling for the introduction of automatic non-means-tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following state-related deaths.
The launch followed the decision by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to reject widely supported proposals and overwhelming evidence in favour of fair legal funding for bereaved people (Final report: review of legal aid for inquests
, CP 39, 7 February 2019). Our new briefing
on legal aid for inquests shows that every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed.
Bereaved families are entitled to have the legal help they need to discover the truth of what happened to their loved ones. Finding themselves without that help and outgunned by lawyers representing public bodies is wholly unacceptable. It is an offence to natural justice and a solution must now be found.
We heard powerful contributions from families speaking about their personal battles for legal aid following the death of their loved ones. Dr Sara Ryan, mother of Connor Sparrowhawk, an 18-year-old who drowned in a locked bathroom in an NHS unit, was up against seven state-funded barristers at the inquest but had to crowdfund £27,000 to cover her own legal fees. She said: ‘To suggest that we didn’t need legal representation at the outset was totally obscene and barbaric.’
The meeting was also attended by justice minister Lucy Frazer QC, who spoke of the MoJ’s proposals to provide better information to families. This was met by a palpable sense of anger and frustration in the room, with one family calling out: ‘We don’t want guidance, we want funding!’ Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, pledged that a Labour government would provide automatic legal aid at inquests for the families of those who die in state detention.
Without funded representation, families are denied their voices and meaningful participation in the processes of investigation, learning and accountability. That is why INQUEST and the families we work with refuse to be silenced. We have campaigned on this important issue for more than 30 years and change is on the horizon. Working alongside families, lawyers, parliamentarians and policymakers, we will keep pushing for fair public funding for legal representation at inquests, to end this unequal playing field.
Find out how you can support the campaign by visiting the website