It has been reported that NHS Mental Health Trusts are spending 4m on lawyers at Inquests, compared to the £117,968 paid by the Legal Aid Agency towards legal representation for families following the death of a loved one.
It has once again shone the spotlight on the fundamental inequality in access to justice, whereby, powerful institutions can afford legal representation at an inquest, but those seeking answers about the death of a loved one cannot.
We have previously written a short blog on the role of a Coroner and the circumstances under which an Inquest needs to be held. This can be viewed here.
In short, an Inquest is a public hearing, conducted by a coroner in a coroner’s court, which seeks to answer a few, very important questions; who the deceased was, when and where they died and the medical cause of their death and how they came by their death.
At present, the Government provides legal aid in cases where it is needed the most, aiming to support the most vulnerable, who have no other means of funding support.
The Government also outlines that Inquests should be non-adversarial, meaning there is no ‘win-lose’ outcome. However, many families feel that the inquest process is a ‘fight’ to uncover the truth, in which they have an unfair disadvantage when they go up against institutions such as Hospital Trusts who can afford a legal team and professional organisations who are familiar and comfortable with the Inquest process.
Legal Aid for Inquests Timeline
In 1999, the Report of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry recommended that “…consideration be given to the provision of Legal Aid to victims or the families of victims to cover representation at an Inquest in appropriate cases.”
The full timeline for Legal Aid for Inquests can be viewed here.
However, following many recommendations over the last 20 years, the legal aid provision for families at inquests remains limited, with few families meeting the qualifying criteria.
Families seeking Legal Aid
At present, there is a real battle for legal aid. State bodies such as the NHS and the police force routinely instruct solicitors and barristers to represent them at Inquest hearings, whilst the families of the deceased have to meet extremely stringent criteria for legal aid.
A link to the eligibility rules can be found here.
The charity, Inquest, which supports relatives at coroner’s courts, recently released figures exposing the low level of legal support for those whose family members have died while in the care of state bodies.
The figures show that last year, £41,265,00. was granted by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) for the legal fees of families’ representation for those who had died in police custody. In comparison the legal bills of 32 of the 44 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was nearly £410,000,00.
The 26 Mental Health Trusts that responded to the charity ‘Julies Mental Health Foundation’ revealed that a total expenditure on legal representation at inquests was around £4m, compared to just under £118,000.00 given to the families.
Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, “Inquests following state-related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet families face state lawyers funded at public expense who work together to limit the remit and put defence of their interest above the search for the truth. This inequality of arms is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families…the shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and public authorities show why urgent reform is needed.”
If a claim for negligence is anticipated, either following an accident or because of medical negligence, it is important that a solicitor is involved at the Inquest stage because this enables important facts about the circumstances of the death to be understood which could support the compensation claim.
Why institutions ensure they are represented at Inquests
When an institution such as the NHS or the police are called to an Inquest regarding the death of someone in their care, they are invariably represented by a solicitor or a barrister at the Inquest hearing. This is because an Inquest is usually the first occasion where all the information and evidence relating to an individual’s death is heard. The institution may be concerned that they are responsible for or contributed to the death in some way and use the Inquest to capture important information and evidence around the circumstances and cause the death.
The institution will also be keen to learn any lessons that might arise from the death, which can inform internal changes to their practices and procedures.
Any evidence heard at an Inquest can also be used as part of Civil Claims.
Our expert team of lawyers have represented a number of families at Inquest hearings.
Contact us on 01603 877000 for more information.
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