This month many people have contacted me about legal aid funding for representation at inquests, particularly in relation to bereaved families of victims of terror attacks. My deepest sympathies go out to those who have lost loved ones in these awful circumstances.
To be eligible for funding, matters must relate to Scots law. Unlike other parts of the UK, there is no system of coroners’ inquests in Scotland, with accidental, unexpected, unexplained, sudden or suspicious deaths investigated privately for the local crown agent, an official called the procurator fiscal. Only certain types of death are investigated further at Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAIs).
In February, I was shocked to learn that, following a decision of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, the families of victims of the Clutha tragedy were being asked to contribute as much as £8,000 each for legal representation. This matter raises broader questions relating to FAIs. I believe there are serious issues with how FAIs work in Scotland, despite the fact that legislative reform took place in 2016.
The Scottish Government has acknowledged the need to review the current legislation regarding the eligibility of families who are involved in inquiries. It noted the issue of legal aid for families involved in FAIs will be considered as part of wider planned reforms to legal aid legislation.
In June 2019, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on legal aid, seeking the public’s views on how to ensure current legal aid provision meets the needs of modern Scotland. It asks whether the availability of legal aid funding should be extended to groups with a common interest in legal proceedings, such as FAIs. The consultation will run until 19 September 2019. I assure you I will follow developments of this closely.
More generally, I will continue to press for the process to be simplified in Scotland and for access to, and awareness of, legal aid to be improved. I believe we should continue to work hard to make sure that access to justice is available to the most disadvantaged.