A Yorkshire MP has urged the Government not to “turn a blind eye to the suffering of some of the most vulnerable in our justice system” as she called for bereaved families to be given an automatic right to legal aid to pay for representation at inquests.
Barnsley MP Stephanie Peacock led a Westminster Hall debate where she said such a move would cost as little as £5m and would be “invaluable to suffering families who need answers”.
She said: “A huge injustice sits at the very heart of our justice system. On the one hand, state bodies and representatives are equipped with access to unlimited funds and resources - the best experts and the best legal teams.
“On the other hand, vulnerable families in the midst of grief are forced to navigate a complex and alien application process that is provided with the bare minimum of support - indeed, most people will not even receive that.”
The Labour MP added: "The process is far too complex, and those who apply for legal aid are forced to run up huge legal bills on their own, represent themselves in court or rely on the generosity of strangers to help raise the required funds.
"Often, people have to tackle complex legal processes that involve multiple interested persons and agencies. Among a host of other complicated legal matters, people must address issues such as access to and release of a body, post mortems, communication with investigation teams, securing evidence and criminal investigations.
"Most people do not have the legal knowledge to do those things, and many do not have the resources to help. I ask the Minister: is that fair?
"We are talking about the death of a child in a mental health setting—a death as a result of neglectful state services, or the self-inflicted death of a prisoner.
"The families of those lost feel a deep sense of pain. This debate is about deaths in state detention and custody, or where there is a clear public interest element to finding out the truth - for example, the Grenfell tragedy, the disaster at Hillsborough, or the recent case of Molly Russell who tragically took her own life in part, her parents believe, because of distressing material related to depression and suicide that she was able easily to access on social media platforms."
Responding for the Government, Justice Minister Lucy Frazer said legal aid was sometimes available through the exceptional case funding (ECF) scheme.
She said: "Legal aid for representation through the ECF scheme may be provided where failure to provide representation would amount to, or risk, a breach of article 2 [of the European convention on human rights], or where there is a wider public interest.
"In the last two years, 339 applications for publicly funded representation at an inquest were granted, and we have taken a number of measures to ensure that ECF funding is more easily granted."