Leeds-based solicitors Lester Morrill has welcomed the outcome of a judicial review, which will make it easier for bereaved families to obtain legal aid so that they may be represented at inquests.
A High Court ruling last Friday found that previous guidance had set the threshold for funding too high, with the result that families who were refused legal aid were left facing the inquest process alone, without legal representation.
The judicial review was brought by Joanna Letts, whose brother Christopher died on the tracks of Tooting Bec Station in August 2013.
She was initially denied legal aid and while the authorities later relented and granted it in Christopher Letts’ case, the judicial review continued on the grounds that it was in the wider public interest to examine whether the existing guidance was lawful, for the benefit of those families who might be in this position in the future.
Lester Morrill, specialists in representing families at inquests, provided relevant witness statements to assist Ms Letts’ legal team, illustrating the impact of the current guidance on bereaved families seeking legal aid.
Gemma Vine, award-winning solicitor and inquest law expert with Lester Morrill, said that the guidance created significant uncertainty and distress for clients.
“In one instance, our client, whose partner had died, waited a gruelling five months for a decision on funding by the Legal Aid Agency.
“She was informed only days before the inquest was due to start that she would be able to have legal representation at the hearing. The delay and uncertainty placed additional unnecessary strain on a lady who was already dealing with her own grief whilst looking after her three young children.
“Representation for this client proved crucial. Although we had made the Coroner aware that expert evidence should be obtained in this case, our protests had been ignored. Having funding meant that a barrister was present on the first day of the inquest and was able to press the point that expert evidence was required otherwise the whole inquest process would be flawed, to the detriment of our client.
“His presence ensured that the inquest was adjourned to allow admission of this vital evidence without which the conclusion would have been very different. Instead, the jury returned a conclusion which was highly critical of the State agencies involved.”