The Secretary of State for Justice and I are today launching a call for evidence which seeks information on the experience of bereaved families at inquests.
An inquest is a distinct judicial process. It can be a traumatic ordeal for the bereaved, both in hearing how their loved ones died and through the frustration in the search for answers. That search for the truth, the answers to the unknown questions, is important in helping the bereaved to understand and make sense of tragedies such as this.
The inquest itself is meant to be an inquisitorial process and as such, most inquest hearings are conducted without the need for publicly funded representation. That must be right to ensure they are as accessible as possible to both the bereaved and the wider public. Of course, early legal advice may sometimes be needed and helpful. That is why we have protected early legal advice to support the bereaved in preparing inquests, ensuring that it remains within the scope of legal aid. It may also be that publicly-funded representation at the inquest hearing itself is necessary in certain exceptional circumstances, and if that is the case it should be provided.
Recently, concerns have been levelled against this existing availability of legal aid for inquests. In light of this, the Ministry of Justice is conducting a review of the current system. This call for evidence forms a key part of this work.
The central aim of this paper is to consider what is needed to ensure that bereaved people have access to the necessary levels of support they need to understand and properly participate at every stage of the proceedings.
The paper seeks to widen our existing evidence base. In particular, we are interested in finding out more about death in custody cases, and cases where there is state involvement in the process. It also seeks to better understand the circumstances in which families may require legal representation to allow for a fair inquest process, and whether changes need to be made to current eligibility criteria.
The paper also includes questions on what can be done beyond the provision of legal aid, to make inquests less adversarial and more sensitive to the needs of bereaved families. This includes looking at the number and actions of lawyers and the style of questioning adopted.
Responses will be used to help us consider whether changes need to be made to existing policies. Any prospective policy options will be presented in a public consultation.
The Government welcomes responses from bereaved people, charities, arms-length bodies, the legal profession, experts, and professionals across the system who have experience or involvement in the inquest process.
The call for evidence exercise will run for 8 weeks to 31 August 2018.
A copy of the consultation paper will be placed in the libraries of the house and will be available online at www.gov.uk.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords: