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Injuty lawyers are urging the UK Government “to level the playing field” for bereaved families at coroners’ inquests. Responding to a Ministry of Justice consultation, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) argued the means testing for legal aid at inquests should be abolished as too many bereaved families were being left to fend for themselves.
The association said that hospitals, the police and local authorities had access to top-level legal advice. Relatives, meanwhile, were forced to go through a complicated means-testing processes. The Ministry of Justice is considering evidence about whether changes should be made to restrictions on the availability of legal aid for inquests. It follows a stream of criticism of the system, including from APIL and the Home Secretary's adviser on the Hillsborough disaster, the Right Reverend James Jones. Brett Dixon, president of APIL, a national not-for-profit group which represents injured people and bereaved families, said ‘distressed and unsupported relatives are completely unfamiliar with the inquest process and could miss the opportunity to ask the right questions or call the appropriate witnesses. It can make a fundamental difference to the coroner’s conclusion, as well as adding to considerable emotional turmoil. In some cases, there are reams of documents to review holding information and details which are upsetting to the family.’ Mr Dixon explained, ‘yet the family suffering a bereavement, sometimes in the most dreadful circumstances, is likely to be refused the same publicly funded legal aid. It is high time that this playing field was levelled.”
The association told ministers that under the present system bereaved families were required to produce backdated payslips, mortgage statements and other evidence, taking time and effort at a stressful period. The Legal Aid Agency has the discretion to waive the financial eligibility requirements if, for example, being denied legal aid would lead to the family having to sell their house to fund the case. Lawyers argue that it would be simpler and fairer if the Legal Aid Agency could take a view on whether to waive the financial eligibility requirements before requiring evidence. Mr Dixon concluded, ‘it has taken some very high-profile tragedies, and atrocities, for this injustice for grieving families to be taken seriously and this must not be another missed opportunity to put it right.’