As a clinical negligence barrister I shall address only the imbalance in funding legal representation at Inquests involving healthcare related deaths but similar considerations arise in other Inquests where a citizen has died unexpectedly whilst in the care of a public body.
I made Freedom of Information Act requests of the Ministry of Justice and of the National Health Service Litigation Authority ("NHSLA") in relation to their funding of Inquests. As a result of their responses I can share with you the following information:
- In the financial year 2013-14 the total expenditure on representation at Inquests by way of exceptional public funding was £43,010. This is the MOJ budget for bereaved families.
- In the same year the NHSLA spent £907,055 on representation at Coroner's Inquests. This is the money spent on representation for NHS Trusts at Inquests where a patient has died unexpectedly.
Thus the taxpayer spend 21 times on lawyers to represent the NHS than on lawyers to represent bereaved families.
Of course the £43,010 was not just for bereaved families at healthcare inquests. That was the total for all exceptional funding that year, whatever the circumstances of the death. So the imbalance as between deceased patients' families and the NHS trusts who were caring for those patients is even greater than a factor of 21.
The Coroner is of course impartial. He or she cannot "represent" a particular interested party.
Healthcare Inquests almost always involve technical medical evidence. Medical and nursing witnesses have all their experience and professional knowledge to call upon. Families are likely to find the hearings distressing and difficult even when they do not have to question witnesses, scrutinise evidence, learn about the legal issues and follow procedures. It is a significant additional burden to have to manage these hearings without help.
It would cost less than £1m per year to provide equality of funding for representation at Inquests.
Perhaps the new Secretary of State can find a way to help these bereaved families.