Inquests and legal aid for relatives of the dead

11 May 2010 by

Recent weeks have seen considerable media attention paid to the role of inquests and their increasing significance for relatives of the deceased.

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, providing legal protection for everyone’s right to life, in some circumstances requires investigation into a death such as an inquest. It places a duty upon the state to ensure the investigation is properly conducted. This may entail providing funding, such as legal aid given to relatives so they may be represented at the hearing.

On 1 May 2010, The Times published “How coroners have become the public voice of grieving relatives” which considered the trend in recent years for coroners to take a role similar to that taken by a chair of a public inquiry. Frances Gibb wrote that David Ridley, a coroner in an inquest for two soldiers killed in Afghanistan, made comments which will give some comfort to grieving relatives. Only two days earlier, another coroner, David Masters, “castigated US authorities’ failure to cooperate in an investigation into the “friendly fire” deaths of three British soldiers”.

The article goes on to note that

“Such criticisms have become almost commonplace in coroners’ inquests. Coroners were once low-profile members of the legal establishment who occasionally voiced concerns. Now they are becoming increasingly vocal, assuming responsibilities as if they were chairmen of public inquiries — often because there is no such inquiry.”

In the light of this increasing tendency to comment critically on the circumstances of a death and the comfort which relatives receive from such statements, there is likely to be more scrutiny of the way inquests are funded in the near future and in particular, decisions relating to whether families of the deceased are provided with legal aid for representation at hearings.

Touching on this topic, The Guardian, on 22 April 2010 published “Relatives of 7/7 bombers refused legal aid for inquests”. Inquests into the 7 July bombings are due to be heard later this year, and relatives of the 52 victims of the attacks are to be granted legal aid. The article notes that,

“Relatives of the 7 July suicide bombers applied for legal aid for representation at their inquests, officials said today. Ministers rejected the two applications after ruling that they did not meet the criteria for public funding….The bombers’ families cannot appeal against the decision to refuse them legal aid, the Ministry of Justice said.”

Given the investigative duties imposed by Article 2, it seems very likely that there is going to be greater focus on legal aid decisions for inquests now that they resemble quasi-public inquiries in some instances.

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