“Families attending Inquests involving the state should receive emergency Legal Aid”

By Jim Gladman, Solicitor, Clinical Negligence

The Guardian has reported on calls for emergency Legal Aid to be provided for bereaved relatives so that they can fully participate in Inquests into the death of a loved one. The Guardian noted that while relatives, who are grieving and often still distressed by the events, may be forced to represent themselves, on the other side, institutional staff and government agencies are invariably represented by senior barristers paid for with public money.

In January 2018 the Report of the Independent Review of Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody explained that families have no automatic right to state funding for legal representation to prepare for an Inquest and at the Inquest hearing. The report recommended: “For the state to fulfil its legal obligations of allowing eective participation of families in the process that is meaningful and not ‘empty and rhetorical’ there should be access for the immediate family to free, non-means tested legal advice, assistance and representation immediately following the death and throughout the Inquest hearing.”

The author of the report, Dame Eilish Angiolini QC, has now called for interim measures to speed up the official response. Dame Angiolini is reported as saying that relatives were expected to represent themselves at a time of grief, she said: “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 [coroners doing so] may appear to lose their impartiality.”

Back in 2016 Peter Thornton QC called for Legal Aid to be made available to relatives in cases in which the government is already paying for lawyers to represent state employees, such as NHS doctors.

The provision of Legal Aid for families to have representation at Inquests was raised in the report on the failures at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital.

Legal Aid is important for Inquests involving hospital deaths; particularly where the loved one has committed suicide. We are assisting families in two suicide Inquests this month. One family has Legal Aid funding but the other does not. Legal Aid for representation at an Inquest can be obtained through “exceptional case funding”, but this is only for a very limited type of case. Some funding may also be available for preliminary legal advice. Both types of funding are subject to means-testing.

The Ministry of Justice will be reviewing evidence about Legal Aid in Coroner’s Courts, with a public consultation expected sometime next year. 

You should seek legal advice if you think that the death of a loved one may have been caused by medical error or mistake. The medical negligence team at Switalskis can help you with this, and can offer advice and assistance if the coroner decides to hold an inquest. Call us on 0800 138 0458 or send us a message via the contact form below.