Amendment 118

Victims and Prisoners Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords am 5:45 pm ar 30 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede:

Moved by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

118: After Clause 38, insert the following new Clause—“Publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people at inquests following a major incident(1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.(2) In subsection (1), after “(4)” insert “or (7).”(3) After subsection (6), insert—“(7) This subsection is satisfied where—(a) the services consist of advocacy at an inquest where the individual is an interested person pursuant to section 47(2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship to the deceased, and(b) one or more public authorities are interested persons in relation to the inquest pursuant to section 47(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or are likely to be designated as such.(8) For the purposes of this section “public authority” has the meaning given by section 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998.””

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, Amendment 118 opens this seventh group. It concerns publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people at inquests following a major incident. We would have preferred to table an amendment extending publicly funded legal representation to all bereaved people at inquests, but I understand that was not in scope. It has been a long-standing Labour commitment to extend publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people.

The current funding scheme allows state bodies unlimited access to public funds for the best legal teams and experts, while families often face a complex and demanding funding application process. Many are forced to pay large sums of money towards legal costs or represent themselves during this process. Others use crowdfunding. The Bill would represent a tiny opportunity to raise the need to positively shape the inquest system for bereaved people by establishing in law the principle of the equality of arms between families and public authority interested persons.

It is no longer conscionable to continue to deny bereaved families publicly funded legal representation while public bodies are legally represented. Without automatic access to non-means-tested legal aid, bereaved families are denied their voice and any meaningful role. The absence of representation weakens investigations into state action; funded representation of the bereaved can safeguard lives and ensure that mistakes or harmful practices are brought to light. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur

My Lords, Amendment 119 seeks to establish a code of practice for post-mortem processes. It arises out of a traumatic event suffered by Jenni Hicks, who lost her daughters Vicki and Sarah in the Hillsborough tragedy.

Perhaps the best way for your Lordships to understand the need for this amendment is to hear in Jenni Hicks’s own words what happened. This is how she described it in an email sent on 5 November 2022:

“I was asked if I would like to see 7 post, post mortem photographs of Vicki and 5 post, post mortem photographs of Sarah. I was warned they were both graphic and not pleasant. However, because of the 33yrs of lies, corruption, deception and lack of trust surrounding my daughters’ deaths, I chose to view them. I was shocked these photographs were in the hands of operation resolve. I’m aware the pathologists would have taken photographs to assist with causation of death and also to assist in writing the pathology reports. But, and it’s a huge but, I had assumed such graphic and sensitive photographs of naked bodies, including genitalia, would have been kept in a secure and safe environment. Not on a police computer”.

Moreover, as I understand it, the relevant injuries were to the head, and the genitalia were not pixelated, which they could easily have been. How could this have happened? These images existed for decades and, of all the many people who would have viewed them, not one of them thought, “This is not right”. It shows no respect for the dignity of the victims, who were young teenage girls. Why did not one person think that this was unacceptable? Not one did. If these had been the daughters of the people who had seen these images, year after year, one assumes that they would have been as profoundly upset and outraged as Jenni Hicks was. But they were not their daughters, so apparently no one cared. This unacceptable situation continued for decades.

For the most part, for whatever reason—and there may be many—a process of desensitisation often takes place in public authorities in the wake of major incidents such as this and on other occasions, apparently. This amendment seeks to put this right.

This amendment tries to address what is clearly an urgent need for a statutory code of conduct to preserve the dignity of the deceased and respect for the feelings of the bereaved. This is a probing amendment, as the Minister is aware. I understand that the Home Office is conducting a review to that end, so I assume that the Minister will want to await its outcome before deciding how to proceed. However, I would be grateful if he could confirm that the Government understand that this was unacceptable, that it must never recur and that they will give any new code of conduct the force of statute.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, I support both amendments in this group. On Amendment 118 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, it is accepted that the whole question of publicly funded representation at inquests has been a grave injustice for many years. Amendment 118 seeks to correct that injustice, which involves a huge imbalance between the families of victims, public bodies and companies that are liable to be blamed for deaths. All those have representation that they can afford, whereas the families and bereaved do not. That injustice should be put right and this amendment seeks to achieve that.

For all the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, I support his amendment on the post-mortem process and the code of practice designed to preserve the dignity of the deceased. But I would go a little further: the code of practice needs to look at the whole process that precedes the public part of the inquest.

In recent months, in two separate cases, I have helped the parents and the widow of victims of medical accidents. They have had real difficulties in getting at the truth and securing pathologists’ reports and post-mortem reports from the coroner’s office. Swift availability of such reports and swift disclosure to bereaved parents and families are of great importance. If this amendment were to see the light of day—I understand that it is only probing—I would suggest that the code of practice should go wider than simply preserving the dignity of the bodies to ensuring that bereaved families are not further hurt by avoidable delay, making that history.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the amendment on the way that bodies are dealt with following a disaster is incredibly important. I remind the House of the “Marchioness” disaster back in 1989; there was an absolute outcry from the relatives about the way that some of those bodies were dealt with. The problem is that their grief is complicated when they hit different barriers and when they feel that the investigation and the post-mortem have been conducted inappropriately, particularly if they feel that things are being withheld from them.

To ensure that we provide support for these relatives, we need to make sure that there is a proper code of conduct and to improve the way that things are dealt with. I therefore think that this is an important probing amendment. I am glad that it is probing, because there are lots of things that could be altered and improved, but this work needs to be done and I hope the Minister will provide us with that assurance.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for Amendment 118, which extends legal aid to inquests. I completely understand the point that is being made, but the Government’s position is that the effect of the amendment is extremely broad and would give all interested persons the entitlement to free legal support and representation in any inquest, regardless of whether or not it follows a major incident, provided that at least one public authority was also an interested person. So, because of its width, the Government are unable to support the amendment.

In addition, the Government are already considering access to legal aid at inquests following major incidents. That is notably in response to Bishop James’s 2017 Hillsborough report. The MoJ is consulting on expanding free legal aid that is available for bereaved families at inquests following a major incident under this legislation and following terrorist attacks. In the Government’s view, the amendment goes beyond its stated purpose and the Government are already acting to deal with the issue of legal aid at inquests, so I respectfully urge the noble Lord not to press his amendment.

I turn to Amendment 119, a probing amendment. I am sure that everyone was moved by the description of the experience of Jenni Hicks, which was recounted by the noble Lord, Lord Wills. I was very sorry to hear about that experience. We very much appreciate the effect this must have had on Mrs Hicks and other families affected. In the Government’s view, Jenni Hicks and others are entirely right to have raised the issue in this Chamber. It is an issue that requires proper consideration. I know that Operation Resolve itself very much regrets the anguish and distress caused by the incident, and has offered its apologies. The officer in overall command has written to them setting out the actions taken to address their concerns, and last year I think the Policing Minister met with the families affected. The Home Office has been assured that appropriate procedures are now in place.

As to the wider issue, the Government entirely agree with the sentiment behind the amendment—that this kind of thing is unacceptable. I say that on behalf of the Government. It is true that there is already wide-ranging guidance for police, pathologists, coroners and others; this includes guidance by the College of Policing, by the Home Office in partnership with the Royal College of Pathologists, by the Chief Coroner and by NHS trusts.

However, it is also the case that the victims were failed in this particular instance, and the Government have commissioned an independent forensic pathology review—I think it is Mr Glenn Taylor who is conducting this—which is expected to report to the Home Secretary in the summer. In the light of that review, the Government will carefully consider its findings and the whole question of the processes. I hear the point made about the “Marchioness” incident—that is one that particularly sticks in one’s memory—and indeed the point made about the whole process of disclosure in other cases of medical difficulty in the NHS, how to get hold of reports and matters of that kind.

I can assure the House that this matter is on the Government’s radar and will be examined most carefully and widely, once the findings of the independent forensic pathology review are available.

Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Llafur 6:00, 30 Ebrill 2024

Can I just clarify this? I think the Minister accepts how serious an incident this was; I think it is accepted that this sort of contempt for the victims and the bereaved is probably pretty widespread, and that something has to be done to make sure it never happens again. Will he confirm that whatever code of conduct emerges from the processes he describes will be given the force of statute?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am not at this moment in a position to give that confirmation at the Dispatch Box. I will give further thought to it, and write to the noble Lord in due course as to whether the Government are in a position to give that assurance. I see the force of the point.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, this has been a short but interesting debate. I acknowledge the points that the Minister made on my Amendment 118, about the existing consultation that the Government are doing and the broadness of the amendment. What was contained in the amendment was an aspiration, I suppose.

My noble friend spoke to Amendment 119 and gave the very moving example of Jenni Hicks. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, also reminded us of the “Marchioness” disaster in 1989. Here again, the Minister said that the independent pathology review will look at processes. We look forward to what may come out of that, and to the Minister’s answer to my noble friend’s question about whether it will have the force of statute. For now, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 118.

Amendment 118 withdrawn.

Amendment 119 not moved.