Challenge to the legality of the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance on Inquest funding – Judgement: 20th February in the High Court
Judge: Mr Justice Green
Case details: R ( Joanna Letts) v Lord Chancellor
Summary of judgement
The duty to carry out an effective investigation in the form of the Inquest when there has been a death in certain circumstances requires the involvement of the next of kin. This is to ensure that there is public scrutiny and accountability. The right to legal aid flows from this. Otherwise the right would be nugatory and the purpose of the Art 2 right to an investigation would be thwarted.
The court found that there are material errors in the Guidance and the threshold set was too high.
Saimo Chahal QC (Hon), of Bindmans LLP, Solicitor for Joanna Letts, said:
“It is very clear from this judgement, that once again, the Lord Chancellor has got it wrong! The court could not have spoken more clearly. The Guidance leads to unlawful acts; permits unlawful acts and encourages unlawful acts. I am certain that this Guidance has led to injustice for many bereaved families who have been deprived of representation and therefore accountability and scrutiny into the death of their loved one at a time when they needed help. Families have had to jump through hoops to get legal aid in inquest cases. I hope that this will no longer be the case”.
The Lord Chancellor can now agree to change the Guidance or we will seek an order for declaratory relief that the Guidance is unlawful in the next 14 days.
Joanna Letts said:
“This is a really fantastic result and I am so pleased that I have done something which will help other grieving families to get representation to secure accountability and to find the truth. I could not have hoped for more. I wanted to do this for my brother and others who have lost someone they loved dearly”
Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST who has made a witness statement in support of the claim said:
“This is an important step forward in ensuring equality of access to justice for bereaved people. The government perpetuates the myth that inquests into deaths in state care or custody are informal hearings where grieving families can be expected to represent themselves and yet these are complex inquests where they come face to face with state lawyers paid for by public funds, there to defend their policies and practices. We hope that this judgement results in less distress and a fairer process for bereaved people.”
Joanna Letts, is a single mother, with four young children and she lives in Lambeth. Her brother, Christopher Letts was aged 29 when on 19.8.2013 he threw himself under a train at Tooting Bec station whilst mentally unwell.
Christopher had been sent by the South London and Maudsley Hospital to a private hospital, the Cygnet in Kewstoke on 12th August 2013 due to a shortage of beds locally. The Cygnet hospital Kewstoke allowed Christopher to leave hospital on 16th August with no support provided, despite the fact that Christopher had been expressing suicidal thoughts saying he “had had enough” and “wanted out” and he had twice attempted to jump off a balcony at the hospital on 13th and 14th August. He was allowed to leave the hospital 3 days later on 16th August despite these behaviours and warning signs and jumped to his death in front of a tube train on 19th August.
In preparation for an Inquest, now listed to start on 23rd February 2015 for 4.5 days, with 5 parties who are legally represented, Joanna Letts applied for Legal Aid in order to be represented at the inquest hearing. Legal Aid was refused to her on grounds that there did not appear to be any failings in the mental health services and so Art 2 – the right to life was not engaged. Joanna Letts was informed that she could represent herself even though she has no legal experience and is responsible for looking after her four children and even though SLAM and Kewstoke Cygnet and the assessing doctors and social worker are now known to be legally represented by Lawyers at the hearing. The Inquest will consider how Christopher came to his death only three days after he was allowed to leave the Cygnet hospital.
Only after Judicial review proceedings were issued against the Legal Aid Agency and the Lord Chancellor as an Interested Party, did the Legal Aid Agency review its decision and agree to grant funding. This would not have happened if Joanna Letts had not had legal representation to fight her case and challenge the Legal Aid Agency.
Joanna Letts had by that time suffered huge stress and anxiety so that she decided that although funding had been agreed in her case, other families who were being denied Legal Aid to be represented at Inquests should not be denied justice owing to the very high threshold set by the Lord Chancellor’s thoroughly confusing Guidance.
At a hearing for permission for Judicial Review on 2nd October 2014, Joanna Letts was granted permission to pursue her challenge that the Lord Chancellor’s Guidance on Inquest funding. The Judge found that the denial of legal aid raised issues of wider public importance.
The case proceeded to a full contested hearing on 5th February 2015.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission were granted permission to Intervene in the case due to its importance. They supported Joanna’s case.
Please click here to view the judgement documentation.
- Joanna Letts wins legal aid High Court judicial review (BBC News, February 2015)
- Bereaved families to get legal aid at inquests if state is involved (The Guardian, February 2015)
- Legal aid challenge for inquests succeeds (The Law Society Gazette, February 2015)