If someone we love dies due to anything other than natural causes, a Coroner must open an inquest into their death. This can be a very daunting procedure however it is a crucial process for families of the person who has died. The inquest safeguards the legal rights of the deceased’s family and other interested persons, highlights lessons to be learned and advances medical knowledge. Many families also find it helps to have the chance to ask questions and, at the end of the process, know that they have the full and accurate facts about their loved ones death.
Despite the importance of an inquest, and the possible implications of the inquest findings to the family of the deceased person, they do not get any financial support to instruct solicitors or barristers to help them. At present only those who can afford to pay legal fees out of their pocket get specialist legal advice.
To make matters worse, when public bodies such as hospitals and local authorities are involved in an inquest, the taxpayer will fund their legal help and representation. Yet the family of the person who died, sometimes in the most dreadful circumstances and possibly as a result of negligence or wrongdoing by that public body, gets nothing.
So, if you don’t have thousands of pounds stuffed under your mattress for a rainy day, the bereaved family have to deal with all the evidence collected from various agencies such as police, the NHS and the Health & Safety Executive themselves. Some reports, especially the post-mortem examination report, can contain detailed medical information and/or graphic descriptions of injuries suffered by the deceased person.
One can only imagine the pain and distress it would cause to have to look at this information if it were about a stranger – let alone someone you love and for whom you are still grieving.
However, after a vote by Peers in the House of Lords on 31 March 2022, legal aid for bereaved people at inquests is one step closer. The vote related to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill which would allow legal aid for families but only where there is a public body involved in the inquest whose legal representation is funded by the taxpayer. The Government is still against allowing families to access legal aid at inquests and MPs will debate the bill when it returns to the House of Commons on 21 April 2022. However, with the support of many charities, practitioners and support groups which work directly with bereaved families, hopefully the Government will continue to be defeated on this bill.
“It is a small but significant step for grieving families” says Julie Bennett, personal injury specialist and Partner at Evans Derry Solicitors. “We do all we can to support our families during this incredibly difficult time but there are so many other families who cannot access this support. Coronial Law is a complex and specialist area but the funding system as it stands is stacked in favour of all parties – except the bereaved families. It’s just not fair so anything to allow families to get access to the same support and advice as publicly funded parties, is a step in the right direction”.
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Julie Bennett is a member of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and Partner working in personal injury law since 2002. Evans Derry have offices at Coleshill, Marston Green and Atherstone.