1st October 2019 –
New figures reveal “shocking” funding injustice faced by bereaved families at inquests
Figures exposing the shocking disparities in funding for legal representation between bereaved families and state bodies will be featured on BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 ‘Families versus the state: An unfair fight?’ tonight.
The programme uncovers figures showing that half of NHS mental health trusts in England spent over £4m representing themselves at inquests in 2017/18 – 34 times the total amount granted in legal aid towards families’ representation (£118k)*. The figures are from Freedom of Information requests released by Julie’s Mental Health Foundation in partnership with INQUEST.
File on 4 also reveals that 32 police forces spent £410k on legal fees for inquests relating to deaths in police custody – ten times greater than the £41k granted for families’ legal costs.
The programme features interviews with bereaved families including Dr Rebecca Montacute of Julie’s Mental Health Foundation, INQUEST Director Deborah Coles, and specialist lawyers. They discuss this inequality in legal funding and what it means for the inquest process, as well as the emotional and financial costs for families battling for the truth in the coroners’ courts.
This adds to the plethora of evidence of the unfair treatment of bereaved families at inquests. The Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquests campaign calls for the introduction of automatic non means tested legal aid funding for bereaved families following state related deaths. Calls for this long term demand were reignited after the Ministry of Justice rejected fairer funding in their review of legal aid for inquests in February 2019. INQUEST’s petition in support of the campaign has since gathered almost 70,000 signatures.
Dr Rebecca Montacute, founder of Julie’s Mental Health Foundation, spoke to File on 4 about the difficulties her family faced following the death of her mother, Julie: “The inquest into my mum’s death found multiple failings in her care. I am certain not all of these would have been found without us spending thousands of pounds from our own pocket on a lawyer. This is a failure in the current system. It doesn’t protect future patients, it just allows mental health trusts to protect themselves.
Mental health trusts can spend huge amounts on their own lawyers when many families who have been failed are given nothing. After a trusts’ failures have led to the death of a loved one, most families have no right to legal aid at the inquest. But having a lawyer is vital to ensure lessons can be learned from these tragedies to protect others in the future.
The government says that inquests are non-adversarial, so families don’t need legal representation. But that is not the experience of families, who can be faced by several different legal teams when they themselves have nothing. Although a coroner tries to be neutral – how can anyone be neutral after hearing several well thought out questions from one side – designed to protect the mental health trust – and nothing or poorly formed questions from the other? Could you maintain a neutral stance after listening to just one side of a story for hours on end? It’s a ridiculous system which isn’t fit for purpose.”
Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “Inquests following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet families face state lawyers funded at public expense who work together to limit the remit and put defence of their interests above the search for the truth.
The suggestion by government that inquests are non-adversarial is dishonest. It denies the reality of the uneven playing field that confronts bereaved families at complex inquests. Without legal representation the family voice is silenced.
No one has a greater interest in ensuring that no stone is unturned. The more failings identified, the more accountability and the chance to learn and prevent more deaths in the future. The public interest is served by this and the changes inquests can bring about.
This inequality of arms is the single greatest obstacle to bereaved families. Every review considering Legal Aid for Inquests over the past 20 years has recommended this injustice be addressed. The shocking statistics highlighting the disparities between funding for bereaved families and Public Authorities show why urgent reform is needed.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 ‘Families versus the state: An unfair fight?’ will be broadcast on Tuesday 1 October 2019 at 8pm and Sunday 6 October at 5pm. Dr Rebecca Montacute has also been interviewed for BBC Stories, ‘I struggled to do my mum justice at her inquest’. It will also be available as a podcast on BBC Sounds.
2. INQUEST’s Now or Never! Legal Aid for Inquestsis calling for:
- Automatic non means tested legal aid fundingto families for specialist legal representation immediately following a state related death to cover preparation and representation at the inquest and other legal processes.
- Funding equivalent to that allowed for state bodies/public authoritiesand corporate bodies represented.
Inquests following state related deaths are intended to seek the truth and expose unsafe practices. Yet families face multiple state lawyers, paid for at public expense, who frequently put defence of their interests above the search for the truth.
Following this, INQUEST launched the campaign. It has the formal backing of a range of organisations including Liberty, Grenfell United, United Families and Friends Campaign, Mind, The Bar Council, Women in Prison, Legal Action Group, AvMA, and Runnymede Trust.
A 38 degrees petition has since received almost 70,000 signatures, demonstrating clear and widespread public support around this issue.
The call for legal aid for inquests following state related deaths has been backed by numerous independent reports and public bodies, dating back as far as the 1999 Macpherson report.
2. Julie’s Mental Health Foundation
Julie’s Mental Health Foundation was set up by Julie’s daughter, Dr Rebecca Montacute to raise awareness of what happened to Julie and campaign on the issues highlighted by the inquest into her death. Rebecca Montacute and other members of Julie’s family are interviewed in the File on 4 Programme. For more information about Julie’s life visit: juliemhfoundation.org.
Note: The following figures are only a partial figure of the total amount spent as they do not include ALL police forces and ALL mental health trusts. Private providers are not included, and multiple agencies or individual members of staff/police are often separately represented at inquests.
- Mental Health: Julie’s Mental Health Foundation submitted Freedom of Information requests to 53 mental health trusts in England asking how much they had spent on lawyers at inquests in the financial year 2017-2018. Responses from 26 of the trusts revealed that £4,026,787.45 was spent on legal representation. In the same year the Legal Aid Agency paid a total of £117,968 towards fees for legal representation at inquests for families following the death of a relative in contact with mental health services. (Source: Julie’s Mental Health Foundation & BBC Radio 4 File on 4)
- Policing: BBC Radio File on 4 reveals that in 2018 (calendar year) just over £41,000 (£41,265) was granted by the Legal Aid Agency towards legal fees for families’ representation for those who had died in police custody. But the amount spent by the police forces involved in those cases was much higher. Freedom of Information requests were sent to all 44 police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, for data on their spending on legal fees for inquests relating to deaths in police custody. 32 responded, revealing that their legal bills came to nearly £410k (£409,744.81) – ten times the amount granted for families legal costs. (Source BBC Radio 4 File on 4)
- Prisons: In 2017, the Ministry of Justice spent £4.2million on Prison and Probation Service legal representation at prison inquests, while granting just £92k in legal aid to bereaved families through the Exceptional Case Funding scheme. (Source: FOI, INQUEST)
We have previously released figures for Julie’s mental health trust (the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Trust) – who spent £200,000 in one year alone on legal costs at inquests. This story was covered in Bristol Live.