Legal aid for inquests – what you need to know
What is legal aid?
Legal aid is public funding for legal advice and representation.
In order to obtain legal aid an application must be submitted to the Legal Aid Agency. They consider the application and decide whether legal aid should be awarded.
Can you receive legal aid for inquests?
There are two schemes that potentially apply in relation to inquests. They are limited, both in terms of the cases they can be used in and what they provide for.
The first scheme is called ‘Legal Help’. It allows solicitors to give early advice and assistance to bereaved families. If Legal Help is granted, a solicitor will be able to help with the initial work necessary to prepare for an inquest. For example, they will be able to assist with the preparation of written submissions to the coroner setting out the family’s concerns and to prepare witness statements.
The second for of legal aid funding is ‘Exceptional Case Funding’ (ECF) which is, as the name suggests, only granted in very specific circumstances. ECF funding can cover representation at pre-inquest review hearings and at the inquest hearing itself (but not any other preparatory work).
What are the criteria you need to meet for legal aid to be given?
The Legal Help and the Exceptional Case Funding schemes are both merits and means tested.
Merits testing means that funding is only granted if the case warrants it. The Legal Aid Agency will consider whether there is a risk of a breach of Human Rights if funding is not granted or if there is a wider public interest in the case that makes funding necessary. Relevant law and principles in this area can be complex, so you should seek specialist advice if you think your case may apply.
Even if the merits test is passed, funding can be denied if the stringent means test is not met. The Legal Aid Agency require comprehensive financial information from applicants before they will consider the application, which can be quite a substantial job, particularly when dealing with a recent bereavement.
Funding can be denied where the family finances fall above a certain level. However, failing the means test does not necessarily mean that families have the ability to pay for legal representation (which can be costly). In these circumstances there may be other funding options available to you, for example a conditional fee agreement or a private funding arrangement.
The Legal Aid Agency can decide to waive the means requirement in circumstances where the state is involved, and under certain obligations to investigate the death or where there is a significant public interest.
Under these circumstances the family may be granted full legal aid funding at no cost or could, instead, be asked to pay a contribution towards their legal costs. The specific contribution would depend on the total likely costs of the legal representation and the family’s financial means.
How do you apply for legal aid?
Our specialist team will be able to guide you through the process and help collate the documents that the Legal Aid Agency require to consider the application.
We have experience in obtaining public funding in a range of inquests and will support you to prepare the strongest application for your circumstances.