Inquests: Government drops means testing for bereaved families

17 January 2022

From this month, bereaved families are to be granted greater access Legal Aid funding towards legal representation at inquests. Families wishing to apply for ‘Exceptional Case Funding’ had previously been subject to a stringent ‘Means Test’, which would involve a detailed examination of their income and assets, however Whitehall officials announced in December that, from 12 January 2022, new and pending applications for Exceptional Case Funding will no longer be subject to means testing.

The decision followed a campaign led by the families of PC Keith Palmer, who was killed in the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack, and Molly Russell, who took her own life after viewing details about self-harm and suicide online. In each case, the family of the deceased failed to obtain legal funding in time for the inquest. The Palmer family did eventually obtain Legal Aid funding, but only after battling with the Legal Aid Agency.

The move has been hailed by supporters, including Conservative Chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill, as a partial victory in the campaign for better access to justice for bereaved families. It is a ‘partial’ victory because families will still be required to apply for Legal Aid and meet the Merits Test. It is felt by campaigners that the system is inherently imbalanced, as the State organisations attending inquests typically have unfettered access to taxpayer funded legal representation.

The campaign had formal backing of a number of high profile organisations, including; Liberty, Grenfell United, The Bar Council, and Legal Aid Practitioners Group.  

Government’s position remains that, since an inquest is an inquisitorial process and not an adversarial one, it is not automatically necessary in all cases for bereaved families to be legally represented at hearings. The merits test therefore remains in place, but the abolishment of the Means Test represents a positive step. Greater access to legal representation for bereaved families is likely to improve efficiency and procedural fairness at hearings.

Birketts’ Regulatory and Corporate Defence Team regularly acts for Public and Private sector organisations and individuals at Coroner’s Inquests and Public Inquiries. If you or your organisation require any guidance in relation to such matters, please contact Matthew Gowen or another member of the Regulatory and Corporate Defence Team.