The Ministry of Justice are currently reviewing the availability of legal aid for bereaved families in England and Wales.
When someone dies in certain locations or circumstances, a coroner will be asked to investigate and determine how that person died.
Examples of when the coroner would be involved are when someone dies alone at home, in a place that is controlled by the government such as in hospital or in prison or have taken their own life.
During his or her investigations, the coroner will ask the police to take witness statements from family members and the people who were close to the person before they died, including professional people who were in charge of their care such as doctors, nurses, social workers, prison officers and police.
The coroner will also gather all the documents he or she needs to investigate the circumstances of the death. These could be medical notes, accident investigation reports or internal enquiry reports.
Usually all of the “interested parties” such as NHS Trust Hospitals or GP Practices or Prison Service, social services or an employer will be asked to attend the inquest if the Coroner believes their evidence will assist the enquiry. These professional bodies can sometimes be under investigation themselves as part of the process. They will be represented during the process and at the hearing by their lawyers. This representation is paid for by that organisation.
The other interested party that is always invited to be part of the process is the family of the person who died. The family usually have important questions for the other parties about what happened and who was responsible for their loved one’s care. If the family has enough money to pay for a lawyer then they can do so. If not, then they often have to represent themselves without any support.
Legal aid is only available in exceptional circumstances to help the family to employ a lawyer. Many go without representation, trying to get answers from the other parties’ witnesses and relying on the coroner to help them through the process.
The inquest process is often painful and distressing for families and the stress of having to read and digest many files of documentary evidence and numerous witness statements places an even heavier burden on them. The process can take years too.
“Having legal representation helps the family through the evidence as well as the process and gives them a crucial voice in the proceedings.” Says Victoria Price. “Grieving families should not be expected to try to take a place amongst professional advocates who are familiar with the process and the relevant rules of evidence. The families are always at a disadvantage in this situation. This unfairness only adds to their upset and despair no matter what the outcome at the end of the process”.
Families and Personal Injury lawyers have campaigned for years to get this system changed so that legal aid would be more widely available.
The Ministry of Justice responded to these appeals in the summer and are now undertaking a review of the process.
The results should be published before Christmas.
If you are involved in a corners inquest and require help, please contact the Price Slater Gawne team on 0161 6155554, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting our Altrincham office.