16 November 2021

A strong coalition of organisations have joined INQUEST in asking the Government to level the playing field at inquests. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill introduces a series of reforms to the inquest system. However, it misses the crucial opportunity to ensure greater equality of arms at inquests. In the letter below which was sent to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill Committee, we call on the Government to amend the Bill to introduce automatic non-means tested public funding for bereaved families at inquests. 

16 November 2021

Dear Committee members,

We write to urge your attention to the crucial opportunity that this Bill presents to level the playing field at inquests and introduce automatic non-means tested public funding for bereaved families at inquests where the actions of state bodies require scrutiny.

This inequality of arms is an unacceptable curtailing of justice, and undermines the preventative potential of inquests, to interrogate the facts and ensure harmful practices are brought to light. Inquests following state-related deaths are intended to seek the truth, to expose unsafe practices and abuses of state power. But the reality faced by most families is of multiple expert legal teams defending the interests and reputations of state and corporate bodies fighting to shut down or narrow lines of enquiry with a primary focus on damage limitation.

The evidence for this change is overwhelming. It is supported from all quarters, including every independent review and public inquiry that has considered issues faced by bereaved families over the last 20 years.

Most recently, the Justice Committee called on the government to “make sure non-means tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is also available for the people that have been bereaved” for all inquests where public authorities are legally represented. The 1 October deadline it set for government action has now passed.

We note the recent announcement from the Ministry of Justice that they will remove the means test for Exceptional Case Funding at inquests – this is a welcome step but does not go far enough. It will not ensure funding for families in crucial circumstances where we that the conduct of state bodies must be interrogated.

Examples of these circumstances include healthcare-related deaths in detention, self-inflicted deaths of voluntary patients in mental health settings or under the direct care of a mental health trust in the community, deaths in supported accommodation or care settings where the person has been placed by a public body or local authority.

The Ministry of Justice plans also do not yet guarantee funding for families during the important early stages of the investigation and inquest process where legal advice is crucial in navigating the system and can input on the scope and quality of the subsequent inquest.

In its Committee Stage briefing, INQUEST set out the detailed rationale for this crucial step as well as the elements of any amendment that should introduce this change. The organisations that have signed this letter support these proposals and urge you to commit to ensuring the Judicial Review and Courts Bill does not miss this crucial opportunity.

Yours sincerely,

Deborah Coles                                    

Executive Director

Peter Walsh, Action against Medical Accidents (AvMA), Chief Executive

Emily Bolton, APPEAL, Founder and Director

Neil McKinley, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, President

Derek Sweeting QC, The Bar Council, Chair

Sanchita Hosali, British Institute of Human Rights, Director

Jessica Mullen, Clinks, Director of Influence and Communications

Steven Wibberley, Cruse Bereavement Support, Chief Executive Officer

Jo Wittams, The Equality Trust, Acting Executive Director

Natasha Elcock, Grenfell United, Chair

Andrea Coomber, Howard League for Penal Reform, Chief Executive

Stephanie Needleman, JUSTICE, Acting Legal Director

Julie Bishop, Law Centres Network, Director

Paola Uccellari, Law Society, Director of Policy

Sue James, Legal Action Group, Chief Executive

Chris Minnoch, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Chief Executive Officer

Sam Grant, Liberty, Head of Policy and Campaigns

Paul Farmer, Mind, Chief Executive 

Emma Ginn, Medical Justice, Director

Lubia Begum-Rob, Prisoners Advice Service, Director

Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust, Director

Jo Hickman, Public Law Project, Director

Niamh Eastwood, Release, Executive Director

United Families & Friends Campaign

Mark Johnson, User Voice, Chief Executive Officer

Dr Kate Paradine, Women in Prison, Chief Executive

Khatuna Tsintsadze, Zahid Mubarek Trust, Co-director