15 September 2021

 This Bill presents an opportunity not to be missed: it must end the fundamental inequality of arms at the heart of the inquest process once and for all, and strengthen rather than weaken the inquest system.

- Louise Finer, Head of Policy, INQUEST

In the next few weeks, MPs will debate the Judicial Review and Courts Bill as it reaches its second reading in the House of Commons. Much attention has been paid to the provisions in this Bill that relate to Judicial Review; less so its relevance to the inquest system. 

Just last week, the government announced its intention to remove the means test on applications for Exceptional Case Funding for legal representation at inquests - a crucial and welcome step forward. This Bill presents government with the ideal opportunity to take this one step further.

INQUEST has long campaigned for automatic, non-means tested public funding for bereaved families at inquests, through our Legal Aid for Inquests campaign. It is essential in cases where public bodies or private bodies that fulfil public functions are involved, and must be provided from the day a person dies. Countless authoritative reviews and inquiries have all reached the same conclusion: the current funding arrangements for inquest representation need fundamental reform. Most recently, Parliament’s own Justice Committee concluded:

It is unfair that public funding is available for bereaved people to be legally represented at inquests only in exceptional cases and subject to a means test. This is the case even at inquests that involve many public bodies each of which are legally represented at public expense.

- Justice Committee, May 2021

Inquests where families are represented have resulted in important changes to policy and practice in the treatment of people in the care of the state. Funding for families therefore has a wider public benefit, far beyond individual rights and interests. It is one of a number of much-needed measures to strengthen the inquest system.

The Judicial Review and Courts Bill currently proposes a series of reforms to the Coroner Service which may chisel away at the circumstances in which inquests are held. The proposed reforms also pave the way for more inquest hearings to be held remotely, as well as the possibility that juries may sit remotely. These provisions, which the government justifies on the basis that they “will support the objective of ensuring the coronial process is sensitive to the needs of bereaved people, in particular by reducing the distress caused by unnecessary procedures” give us cause for concern.

There is unacceptable variation in the standard of service between Coroner areas.

- Justice Committee, May 2021

At present, the inquest system in England and Wales is inconsistent and under-funded. The proposed measures are completely out of step with the fundamental reform proposed by the Justice Committee. Introducing measures that will lead to further discretion when inconsistency has already been highlighted as a problem has the potential to make things worse.

INQUEST sought to find out more about the government’s plans when these measures were initially announced in the Queen’s Speech, but were turned away. Transparency is seriously lacking: the government has repeatedly refused to publish its own review of the  implementation of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, once again evidenced in its response to the Justice Committee. 

INQUEST believes the provisions in this Bill need to be reconsidered. Without strong safeguards, the measures introduced could undermine bereaved families’ chance to understand the circumstances around their family member’s death, and the wider public benefit of the inquest system.

Instead of using Parliament’s own Justice Committee’s detailed report as a blueprint to strengthen the inquest system, the government has set out a series of measures that could lead to corners being cut and crucial opportunities being missed. Its evidence base for them is shaky.

INQUEST are urging MPs to take part in the upcoming second reading in the House of Commons. To challenge these problematic aspects of the Bill, whilst raising the opportunity it presents to create a fairer inquest system that supports bereaved people and better effects change to protect lives.

TAKE ACTION: Ask your MP to attend the debate and send them INQUEST’s briefing for MPs. 

Find Your MP  INQUEST Briefing