A new campaign is calling for the Government to introduce non-means tested legal aid for families looking for justice after losing relatives in a state-related death.
Furious families demanded answers from a Government minister who told them she stood by her plans not to provide automatic legal aid to those whose loved ones die while being cared for by the state.
Justice Minister Lucy Frazer, a former commerical barrister, was speaking at the launch of a campaign by charity INQUEST calling on the Government to introduce automatic, non-means tested legal aid for families following a state-related death of a relative.
The charity believes “it is time to level the playing field at inquests” and that families should have legal aid equivalent to that enjoyed by public authorities and state and corporate bodies.
The families of those killed in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster have been among those who were not automatically eligible for state-funded legal representation. Many families have to pay large sums towards legal costs, while some represent themselves or crowdfund.
“Connor was a huge fan of human rights. He used to take injunctions out if we asked him to empty the dishwasher… He would be totally appalled by this”Dr Sara Ryan, mother of Connor Sparrowhawk
A review of the current means-tested system, published by the Ministry of Justice in February, said the Government would not be accepting recommendations from 14 official reviews dating back to 1999, families and lawyers calling for the change.
The review’s final report noted that it had “looked into the financial implications of this option… [which] would result in an additional spend of between £30 million and £70 million”.
In front of more than 40 families at the launch of INQUEST’s campaign, ‘Now or Never?’, in Parliament yesterday, Ms Frazer said: “I know you’re all interested in legal aid. I understand, I was a barrister, and I understand how important and effective the support of having a lawyer can be. But, that isn’t the end of support you can give to people. We have committed to doing a number of things in relation to guidance, in relation to the coroner’s service, in relation to the obligation of legal representatives.”
She was interrupted by one family member who said: “We don’t want guidance, we want funding.”
“I think it is important to acknowledge that there are a number of other aspects which are important and those will be addressed in the coming months,” the minister continued.
She said she “would take issue with” INQUEST’s feeling that families were back to square one. But, Deborah Coles, the charity’s director, said the review had done “absolutely nothing to address the huge power imbalance between families and the state and corporate bodies”.
“Properly conducted inquests can shine a light on dangerous practices and identify life-saving measures to prevent future deaths,” Ms Coles said. “Where families have access to legal representation, we all benefit. Every review and public inquiry that has considered this issue over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice be addressed.”
“Obscene and Barbaric”
In 2013, 18-year-old Connor Sparrowhawk died in an NHS care unit in Oxford. He had autism, a learning disability and epilepsy and had been left alone in a bath. He drowned after having an epileptic seizure.
Two years later, an inquest jury concluded that neglect had contributed to Connor’s death.
Despite this, the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust had said Connor’s death could be attributed to ‘natural causes’ and his family were told they would not need legal representation because inquests are ‘inquisitorial’ (designed simply to establish the facts of a case), rather than adversarial, hearings.
“Is that what we’ve become? Leaving people to shake a collection tin online or in person in the pursuit of truth and justice?”Richard Burgon MP, Shadow Justice Secretary
In reality, most families are faced with expert legal teams defending the reputation of state and corporate bodies – fighting to shut down or narrow lines of enquiry, with a primary focus on damage limitation.
Connor’s family had to crowdfund £27,000 to cover their legal fees and were up against seven state-funded barristers.
“To suggest that we didn’t need legal representation at the outset was totally obscene and barbaric,” Dr Sara Ryan, Connor’s mother, said.
“Connor was a huge fan of human rights. He used to take injunctions out if we asked him to empty the dishwasher. He was so intent on ‘I have my rights’ and he would be totally appalled by this and he would have repeatedly asked me: ‘why?’. ‘Why did you have to pay mum?’.”
Last year, Kevin Clarke died after being restrained by police officers in London. The 35-year-old had mental health problems.
Fighting back tears, his sister Tellecia Stracham said families faced a double injustice “because we’re left here, sitting in the dark, at all times’.
“My family have had to suffer because my mum had to go through her finances, everything she has, just for legal aid,” she said. “But, the state, you’re just provided with it with taxpayers’ money and it’s wrong and it’s not fair on the families. I will always fight for my brother because the way he died, it was unjust. And I will say that until the day I die.”
“Consequences to Injustices”
Faced with a number of emotional requests to be heard from the audience, Lucy Frazer said she would not be taking any questions.
Before leaving the meeting, she added: “I understand it’s frustrating because I understand what you would like to hear is that we are going to put in legal aid funding and support on a non-means tested basis for cases in which the state is responsible potentially for a death. We have said we are not going to do that, but we have said we will do [other] things.
“Whilst it is not feasible to provide legal aid for inquests across the board, we will work closely with other Government departments to explore potential options for funding of legal support at inquests where the state has state-funded representation… we will look at whether other Government bodies who are the other side in your proceedings should bear some responsibility for some of the costs.”
“I understand how important and effective the support of having a lawyer can be… But, that isn’t the end of support you can give to people”Lucy Frazer MP, Justice Minister
Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon said a Labour Government would enact the change. “As we’ve heard at this meeting tonight, some crowdfund,” he said. “Is that what we’ve become? Leaving people to shake a collection tin online or in person in the pursuit of truth and justice? Can our justice system seen truly to be fair if state bodies are legally represented at inquests where the victim’s families aren’t?
“This is an issue I believe that touches on the values and principles of our justice system. And, of course, this goes wider than the individual families themselves… it’s also about preventing others suffering… The most corrective thing is knowing that there are consequences to these injustices and these tragedies.”
INQUEST’s petition calling on the Government to introduce automatic, non-means tested legal aid for families of relatives who die in state care can be viewed here.