Members of Parliament State That Families Should Get Legal Aid at Inquests Which Involve the State

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Amy Baker

Graduate Solicitor Apprentice

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In a recent statement, the Justice Committee has stated that a lack of access to Legal Aid is the “single greatest obstacle” to families getting justice through the inquest systemin the UK.

An inquest is an investigation, which consists of a public hearing, into a death which appears to be due to unknown, violent or unnatural causes. It is designed to find out who the person who has passed away is in addition to where, when and how they died. In some inquests, the scope of the inquest can be widened to include the broader circumstances leading to the persons death. An example of this may be when a person has died whilst they have been in custody or when they have been in state detention. The question of how the person passed away is usually the most difficult question to be answered during the process of an inquest.

In the UK, coroners are responsible for making enquiries where the cause of someone’s death is unknown. Investigations are undertaken on their behalf by the Coroners Office which has a different role from that of a court because there are no formal allegations of accusations. This means that there is no power to blame anyone directly for the death. At the end of the inquest, the coroner will give their conclusion which will appear on the persons final Death Certificate and the death can finally be officially registered.

Understandably, the process of an inquest can be traumatic for the bereaved family of the person who has passed away in these circumstances. There can be a real mixture of emotions experienced during the search to find out what has happened to their loved one which aims to help them make sense of such a loss in addition to ensuring that, where applicable and appropriate, there is proper accountability for the circumstances or actions which had some kind of impact on their loved one’s death.

In order to support families in these dreadful circumstances, it has been proposed to the government that bereaved families should be able to participate in the inquest process. As part of this, a cross party group of MPs have argued that these bereaved families should be able to obtain access to public funding for legal representation at inquests which involve the state. This would include providing legal aid in cases where it is most needed.

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The Situation

According to the Justice Committee, public authorities are legally represented at public expense during these inquests, while bereaved families are “forced through hurdles” just to get Legal Aid which will allow them to be represented and involved in the process.

This, it said, is the “single greatest obstacle to families securing truth and justice through the inquest system”. For years now, a charity by the name of Inquest has been actively campaigning for systemic change to the way that inquests are carried out in England and Wales. They are the only charity in England and Wales who are able to provide expertise on state related deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, advice and support agencies, the media and parliamentarians.

Inquest pride themselves in being entirely independent of government completely. They were founded in 1981 and campaign alongside families to access the truth, to hold those responsible to account and to effect meaningful change in the hopes of preventing future deaths. In particular, one of the areas that they are able to focus on is deaths which occur in state custody and detention.

Why Should It Change?

Inquest state that one of the reasons that Legal Aid should be provided to bereaved families at inquests in England and Wales to level the playing field between bereaved families and the state. They make the point that state bodies and representatives have unlimited access to public funding for the best legal teams and experts whereas grieving, bereaved and vulnerable families do not. In order to even attempt to access some public funding, bereaved families face complex and demanding applications through the funding process for Legal Aid and even then, only some of those applications are actually granted.

This leads to some families being forced to represent themselves or appeal to the generosity of the wider community to crowdfund to obtain legal representation. Other simply find themselves faced with a large legal bill at the end of the inquest process which is quite often difficult and sometimes gruelling for bereaved families to endure.

Given this, our Personal Injury and Public Law Solicitors fully back the call by the Justice Committee  and believe that the state must make sure that the system is both fair and accountable.

Here at Simpson Millar, we believe that the government should follow this advice to honour the memories of those who have passed away and to improve the already difficult experiences of bereaved families involved in the inquest process. We believe that there ought to be a way to  ensure access to an open and truthful explanation for grieving relatives.

The Final Report

In the final report prepared by the Parliamentary Under Secretaries of the State for Justice and presented to the government, it is highlighted that it is important that people in society have confidence in every part of the justice system, including inquests. The report outlines that the Legal Aid Scheme is designed to make sure that those who are most vulnerable and who have no other means of funding support are provided with assistance.

The final report was finally published in 2019 after a review was ordered by the Lord Chancellor at the time in 2017. The conclusion of the report was that the vast majority of inquests are inquisitorial and fair, however it did recognise that there is a need to do more to ensure that inquests do not become adversarial in nature. The report highlights the need for the coroner to be fully in control of the inquest and for the behaviour of lawyers should be “as it should be” during an inquest. The report suggests that there is a real need to improve guidance literature for inquests aimed at those who are navigating the process.

When considering the inquest process itself, one of our solicitors at Simpson Millar, said: “The inquest is the moment where the bereaved have the chance to look the state in the eye and ask whether more could or should have been done to prevent the irreversible death of their loved one.”

“One significant obstacle for the bereaved family is the fundamental inequality of arms where the state is represented by a bank of lawyers while the family is unrepresented - an issue long campaigned for by the charity Inquest.

“This is probably the greatest obstacle to families unearthing the truth and getting justice.”

“It is a mark of a just, honest and humane society to tell the truth. While some families do have positive experiences, far too many experience it as yet another layer of bureaucracy to disguise what happened and deny the families their truth”

What Other Problems Do Families Face At Inquests?

In addition to a lack of provision of Legal Aid, the Justice Committee highlighted several other challenges which are also facing families going through inquests, including:

  • Not being given enough information about their rights and support
  • A lack of respect sometimes given by coroners
  • The need to introduce an appeals system for inquests

“Bereaved families are all too often treated with a lack of dignity, respect and empathy, and are met by frequent attempts by lawyers representing the state and private organisations to deny, delay and defend actions rather than address failings,” the Justice Committee said.

“The inquest process has a key role in preventing future deaths, yet families time and time again tell us they have no confidence in this leading to change.”

Despite this, the conclusions of the reported prepared by the Ministry of Justice determined that the introduction of a Legal Aid System for families of bereaved individuals involved in an inquest would remain as it is. They refused the introduction of a Legal Aid System which is not means tested and would be available to any family of a decreased person involved in an inquest.

The reasons for this remain unclear however the report does state that the government will “look into” further options for the funding of legal support at inquests where the state has access to state funded representation. The outcome of this appears to have been what Inquest has called “incredibly positive commitments” around the means testing of legal support for some bereaved families, although they continue to campaign for a fairer Legal Aid System accessible to all families involved in an inquest.

This is obviously disappointing news for the families affected in addition to those campaigning for change. At the forefront of this, we must keep in mind the difficulty that bereaved families go through during an inquest and the challenges that they continue to ensure.

Our solicitor added: “I have witnessed the lack of dignity, respect and empathy met upon the bereaved by Coroners and those representing the state and private organisations, and the strategies to deny, delay and defend actions rather than honestly accept, embrace and apologise for the failings.

“The inquest should prevent future deaths, but I witness my clients’ experience that destroys their confidence that their loved one’s death will lead to any meaningful and real change.”

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article and wish to seek legal support in relation to an inquest related matter, you can contact our helpful expert legal team on 0808 258 3743 for further information. Alternatively, you can request a call back here.


UK Government. (n.d.). Exceptional case funding for representation at inquests. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

UK Government. (2020). Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

Bereavement Advice Centre. (n.d.). Coroners' Inquests. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

UK Government. (2019). Review of Legal Aid for Inquests. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

(2022). Legal Aid for Inquests. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

(n.d.). About Us. Retrieved from (Accessed: December 2, 2023)

Amy Baker

Graduate Solicitor Apprentice

Amy is a Graduate Solicitor Apprentice within our Personal injury department, based in our Manchester office.

She helps clients who have sustained injuries resulting from accidents at work and accidents in public places to recover compensation for the injuries they have sustained.

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