Legal aid not available for victim’s family in the 1974 Guildford Pub Bombings inquest
19 December 2019
The tragic events of the Guildford pub bombings saw four people killed and another 65 injured when the IRA blew up two pubs in 1974. In January of this year, the decision was taken to resume the inquest into the Guilford pub bombings, more than 40 years since it was suspended.
One of the victims of the bombings was Ann Hamilton. Her sister, Cassandra Hamilton, has had her legal aid application refused and will be unable to have legal representation at the inquest. The Government has stated that the coroner could question witnesses on behalf of relatives.
Scope of the inquest
The inquest will investigate issues such as: when exactly the blast went off; where the bomb went off; where the victims were; who was with victims; how long did the victims survive for; did they say anything prior to their deaths and, what was the response of first aiders and emergency services.
It is important to note that the inquest does not have the scope to explore who was responsible for the bomb, the composition of the explosive device or any claims that the police lied during the trial of the “Guildford Four.” Furthermore, the inquest will not address issues about whether there was any forewarning given to the British authorities prior to the bombings being carried out and if steps could have been taken to avert the disaster.
Legal aid criteria
Given the scope of the inquest, and that there is no suspected breach of the state’s obligations that might have caused the deaths, there is no engagement of the right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“Article 2”).
The parameters under which legal aid can be granted in this case are therefore set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 section 10(4): The Director of Legal Aid Casework has the power to grant exceptional funding for advocacy services if they have made what is known as a “wider public interest determination.” This power exists only in relation to inquests and for the benefit of family members.
A wider public interest determination is a determination that, in the particular circumstances of the case, the provision of advocacy services is likely to produce significant benefits for a class of person other than the applicant or their family. However, it is not sufficient that there is a wider public interest in the inquest itself. Rather, the wider public interest must be in the applicant being represented, that is, the applicant must show that being represented will yield wider benefits above and beyond those of the applicant.
The guidance set out by the Lord Chancellor states that the most likely public benefits include the identification of dangerous practices, systemic failings or findings that identify significant risks to the life, health or safety of other persons.
The bombings were carried out by the IRA in 1974. Given the scope of the inquest, the only wider benefit that could be achieved would be identifying and remedying the potential failings of the first aiders and emergency services back in 1974. However, the emergency services have changed out of all recognition from the 1970s and so any issues raised are unlikely to provide an opportunity for reform. It is therefore a sensible policy decision not to provide legal aid because there is no wider public interest.
So, unless the scope of the inquest is changed to engage Article 2 through the exploration of whether the British authorities had prior knowledge of the bombings and could have taken steps to avert the disaster, Ms Hamilton will have to place her trust in the Coroner asking questions of the witnesses on behalf of relatives rather than using her own legal representatives.
Henry Tufnell is a pupil barrister at 1 Crown Office Row.