As recently reported in the Law Society Gazette, the Ministry of Justice has announced that guidance for its legal aid safety net, will be amended to make it easier for families of people who have died in custody to receive public funding for representation at inquests.
The scope of legal aid under the government’s exceptional case funding (ECF) has long been the centre of debate, with government cuts restricting those who are eligible for financial support.
Legal practitioners argue that the lack of legal aid funding prevents families from obtaining legal representation at inquests and therefore restricts their ability to get to the bottom of what caused the death of their loved one.
If the proposed changes go ahead, they will apply to families of those who have died a non-natural death, including suicide, whilst detained by the police, in prison or in a mental health unit.
The process of applying for Legal aid involves a financial means test which normally applies to the individual applicant and their family members. However, the Ministry of Justice have acknowledged that the caseworker for the bereaved family must additionally take into account the anguish and anxiety when deciding whether to apply the financial means test.
If the caseworker deems the financial means test necessary the proposed changes would mean the financial means test would only apply to the individual who is applying.
The number of successful legal aid applications is also being reviewed. Fiona Rutherford, Deputy Director for Legal Aid Policy acknowledged that funding applications were sometimes only being accepted once judicial review had been threatened. There is considerable frustration among practitioners at their inability to make representations directly to the legal aid case worker, to provide insight into the specific situation of the family of the ceased.
This legal aid review is aiming to improve the process to reduce the distress of bereaved families in what is clearly a very difficult time. The final review on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) is due to be completed this year with practitioners hoping it will bring the long awaited changes that the legal aid system has needed.
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