Inquest funding: 'Hillsborough Law' backed by chief coroner

Hillsborough families Image copyright Reuters
Image caption An inquest jury ruled that 96 victims were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough 27 years ago

Bereaved families should be given legal aid at inquests in which police or public bodies are involved, the chief coroner for England and Wales said.

Peter Thornton QC will include the recommendation in his annual report.

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham called for a "Hillsborough Law", after the families' 27-year campaign.

The government said funding support was available "in the most important cases" and more than £1.5bn was spent on legal aid last year.

'Intimidating and distressing'

In April the Hillsborough Inquests ruled the 96 victims were unlawfully killed.

New inquests had been ordered after the original accidental death verdicts were quashed at the High Court in 2012.

The families were required to pay legal costs for the 1990 hearing but the government paid the costs incurred by the families at the new inquests.

The Hillsborough Family Support Group chairwoman, Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son James in the 1989 disaster, had to raise £3,000 to pay for a barrister at the original inquest in 1990.

Mrs Aspinall is also backing the change for relatives in Hillsborough-type legal fights. and earlier called for a "level playing field" for bereaved families.

In June, Mr Burnham proposed an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill to give families a legal right to receive the same amount of funding as the police.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The shadow home secretary had long campaigned with the Hillsborough families for justice

However, it was not backed and the government said any decision should await a report being written by the former Bishop of Liverpool James Jones.

Mr Burnham called the chief coroner's support for the change "an important intervention" and he said Labour would call a new debate on a Hillsborough Law in the Lords later this year.

Means testing

He added: "It is wrong that the police and other public bodies are able to throw around public money like confetti hiring top QCs when bereaved families have to scratch around for whatever support they can get.

"Far too often, inquests are intimidating and distressing for families still raw with grief."

He said it was essential "we continue to act on all the lessons learned" and "make Hillsborough a moment of real change", with Parliament rebalancing the legal system in favour of ordinary people.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Legal aid remains available to help families prepare for an inquest, subject to financial means and legal merits tests. Funding for representation is also available where certain criteria are met.

"Our legal aid system is still one of the most generous in the world. Last year we spent in excess of £1.5bn on legal aid."

The spokesperson added: "We have made sure that legal aid continues to be available in the most important cases, where people's life or liberty is at stake, where they face the loss of their home, in domestic violence cases or where their children may be taken into care."

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