If you are arrested for the most minor of criminal offences, subject to your means you are entitled to Legal Aid. In principle that allows you access to any solicitor or barrister in the country prepared to work for you on the relevant rates.
On the other hand, unless there are very exceptional circumstances (which almost never arise) legal aid is not available in the Coroners’ Courts. Why is this important, you ask? Let me give you some examples, all of which occurred to me during the course of my practice.
Your husband pops out shopping and inexplicably doesn’t return. Four hours later two sorrowful police officers stand on your step to tell you that there has been a terrible accident involving a truck driver who was texting on his phone. Regrettably your husband has been killed.
Your young and healthy daughter goes into hospital for a simple elective operation. Anaesthetic complications arise and she dies.
Your elderly and slightly confused mother-in-law is admitted to hospital after a fall. Happily she doesn’t need surgery, but she is temporarily handicapped and requires a few days’ conservative treatment before being discharged. The staff are too busy to encourage her to eat and drink and she becomes dehydrated. They are so rushed that drugs rounds are delayed. She, too, dies.
In all of these cases there will be an inquest. In all the grieving family will be facing a well-equipped team of lawyers and experts. In the first there is a solicitor, a barrister, an accident reconstruction expert instructed by the insurers for the truck driver and an experienced police officer with 20 years of investigating road deaths. In the others there are a solicitor, a barrister, a handful of consultants and a nursing expert.
In none of these cases was legal aid available. While in the throes of grief, the families were expected to know coronial law and procedure, and be able to cross-examine all of these professional witnesses.
I think it’s a scandal. It’s what induced me to help set up the Road Victims Trust, a charity that still operates in the Home Counties to support families who have been bereaved on the roads. I also personally set up a team of lawyers prepared to act pro bono, attend the coroners’ court and represent the families in whatever cases were brought before the court, including deaths on the roads, on building sites, in factories and in hospitals.
Legal aid used to be the mechanism guaranteeing equality of arms so that even the poorest and the weakest members of our society could take on the big corporations and even the government if they had suffered injustice. It has been whittled away by successive governments to the point that it barely exists now. The English system of justice is still acknowledged around the world as one of the best, and our High Court attracts litigants from around the world. The only problem is, nowadays you need money to be able to access it.
Why am I banging on about this, you ask? Because the absence of legal aid and the willingness of Charles Holborne to take another pro bono inquest is what sets Charles off on his next case of murder, corruption and legal shenanigans. Book 6 in the series will be available for pre-order in July, and I’ll have further news about it in the course of the next few days.
End of rant.