Does legal aid need reforming for ‘inquest families’?

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Often when a loved one dies, families will seek closure, and in some cases, justice. Particularly where a relative dies whilst in the care of a hospital or trust, an inquest may be opened into that relative’s death. Close relatives of the deceased are considered ‘properly interested persons’, and are entitled to be legally represented at the inquest if they choose.

Inquests are intended to be non-adversarial and so, with the lack of controversial issues, family members do not have a lawyer present at most inquests. If the family members have questions, they are usually able to ask questions themselves.

However, not all inquests are so straightforward, and in more complex cases, family members may choose to use a lawyer, and any other ‘properly interested person’, such as the hospital where the deceased was treated, may have their own representation too. The lawyers will then ask the questions instead on behalf of the party they are representing, and can address the Coroner on any matters of law that may arise as part of the inquest.

Unfortunately, legal aid funding is not usually available for representation at inquests, forcing grieving families to pay for legal advice and representation themselves. At a very small handful of inquests, where the case is so complex that it would be outrageous if the family were not represented, the Coroner can themselves request that funding is given to the family. However, this is at the sole discretion of the Coroner to make such a request and the family would have to already have engaged solicitors who would need to approach the Coroner about funding for them. At most, the family may be able to find a charity or law firm that operates a pro bono service, allowing them to seek representation at some inquests, often where there are concerns about the medical treatment received by the deceased.

Under the Coroners and Justice Act, an interested person such as a family member is allowed to choose a representative who is not qualified as a lawyer, but this can be of little help when trying to challenge matters of law.

Every year, hospital and mental health trusts spend millions of pounds engaging lawyers to represent, and often defend, them at inquests, in an attempt to prevent them from being found at fault for the deceased’s death. Yet for those families unable to afford their own legal representation, they are forced to stand up and face those legal representatives alone, often not even knowing what questions they should be asking.

As changes are made to legal aid, expanding its scope and removing some of the financial barriers that previously existed, it may be time to reassess the scope of issues that are eligible for legal aid, and consider whether in cases such as inquests, families should be able to access legal aid to assist in their fight for justice for their deceased loved one. Families should not have to choose between seeking justice for their relative who has died and the legal costs associated with this.

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