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Government ‘ignoring’ calls for legal aid funding at inquests

WIDESPREAD calls to reform legal aid funding for inquests are being “ignored” by the government, campaigners have claimed on the 70th anniversary of the mechanism’s enactment in Britain.

In 2015 the high court ruled that more bereaved families should get legal aid at inquests if the state was involved but many still struggle to receive it.

Lawyers say that cuts to legal aid funding in civil cases have made it harder for families to get representation when a loved one’s death is subject to an inquest.

Ben Bennett, whose 19-year-old daughter Sophie was found hanged in 2016 at a west London psychiatric facility, said his funding battle with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) ahead of her inquest was “horrific” and the system was “crass and cruel.”

Before she died she described the Lancaster Lodge care home as being run “like a boot camp.”

Richmond Psychosocial Foundation International, which runs the facility, is being investigated by the Charity Commission after an inquest found its leadership was “grossly inadequate” and deemed it as “chaotic and unsafe.”

The LAA eventually agreed to subsidise the cost of lawyers but Mr Bennett still had to pay £2,500.

Mr Bennett said: “The assessment was error-strewn, the process was laborious and bureaucratic.

“They are not transparent on how decisions are made.

“Thank goodness we did have legal representation. I can’t even contemplate how the inquest would have been if we didn’t have a barrister. I think it would have pushed me over the edge.

“If we hadn’t pushed for it, it would have all been swept under the carpet.

“It’s only families that have a real determination and resilience to find out the truth in these proceedings.

“Our daughter is dead, no-one can bring her back.

“It’s about the system acknowledging failings and learning lessons.”

State-related deaths charity Inquest director Deborah Coles said: “In the last six months we have gone backwards.

“Families are forced to try and fight for funding with intrusive and protracted applications while they are grieving.

“It is stressful at an already painful time.”

She said: “There is a groundswell of support for non-means tested funding and parity of funding.”

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