crime

The Injustice at the Centre of State-Related Deaths

Despite a decades-long campaign, the Ministry of Justice refuses to allow access to automatic legal aid in the event of a state-related death.

by Kieran Yates
05 April 2019, 1:46pm

Marcia Rigg holding a photo of her brother, Sean. Photo: Pete Maclaine / Alamy Stock Photo

"I'm still waiting for help after years. My brother had mental health issues and was restrained with excessive force – I'm sitting in absolute limbo!”

A shout rings out in the House of Commons, bursting the dam of silence. Suddenly, other voices pierce the air: "Is crowdfunding for justice what we've become?" "This is second rate justice!"

Committee Room 10 is hot, airless and bristling. Families are listening to case studies of people who have died in state-related incidents, ranging from Grenfell and Hillsborough, to deaths in police custody, social care and on mental health wards. They – along with a handful of journalists – have been brought together to launch a campaign with the charity INQUEST, which aims to ensure that everyone in the UK has access to automatic legal aid in the event of a state-related death.

Under the current system, families are means tested. If they qualify, they have their legal fees subsidised by the state. Scrapping this means testing and making legal aid available to all would cost the taxpayer up to £70 million a year, according to the Ministry of Justice, which has continued to ignore calls to level the playing field.

Alongside the fact the state has an obvious responsibility to help families whose loved ones have died in their care, it's important to point out that these aren't exactly cases people are opting to take – like, say, suing a workplace for negligence, or undergoing divorce proceedings. As Rebecca Roberts, Head of Policy at INQUEST, says, "Families aren't choosing to undergo these processes. Every review and public inquiry that has considered these issues over the past 20 years has recommended that this injustice must be addressed. Yet the Ministry of Justice have disregarded the evidence and ignored the voices of bereaved families."

At one point in the proceedings, the Minister for Legal Aid, Lucy Frazer MP, quotes a Ministry of Justice report released earlier this year, which promised it would be improving the guidance available to families of victims. Before she can finish, a woman named Stephanie Lightfoot-Bennett shouts, "We don't want guidance, we want funding!"

Lightfoot-Bennet, 58, is well known in this world. Part of the United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC) group, she's been fighting for justice for her twin brother, Leon Patterson – who died in police custody after a stop-and-search that went awry – for the last 26 years.

"He was there for the day! He went for the day, got chased down, arrested, and six days later he was dead in a cell," she tells Frazer. "All they kept saying to me was that he 'beat himself to death'. I found today to be piecemeal. Are you going to listen to the families or are you going to give us the same rhetoric that's given to us every single time you roll us out?"

Filing out into the street afterwards, attendees gather and exchange hollow laughs in the knowledge that they have a long fight ahead of them. "We know we'll never win against the state," one woman sighs, "but it's about wanting to know what's happened to my brother."

Among the women here – and it is predominantly women; sisters, mums and aunties – is Marcia Rigg, who has tireless campaigned on the issue since the death of her brother Sean, in 2008, while he was in police custody. She's wearing a T-shirt bearing a photo of her brother's face.

Following Sean's death, Marcia and her family had to undergo financial background checks to see if they qualified for state-funded legal aid to seek justice for her brother. "We had to complete a form that was so intrusive," she says. "[The state] wanted to know if [we] had jewellery under our floorboards. My father had died eight years before and they wanted to know what he had left us. The means-testing process is just unbelievable. I just remember getting the form, screwing it up and throwing it on the floor, thinking, 'What is wrong with these people?'”

According to government figures, legal representation costs around £9,000 to £10,000 per inquest. However, Marcia recalls that her initial legal bill was £21,000, while others at the launch event recount fees exceeding £10,000. Even if the government's figures are correct, what "middle class" family can comfortably afford to foot that bill, just to ask that justice might be served?

"INQUEST and the families we work with refuse to be silenced," says Roberts. "We call on the government to act now and urgently introduce fair public funding for legal representation at inquests, to end this unequal playing field."

Legal aid is not strictly a race issue – anyone without the considerable financial means to take the state to task is under threat – but black families are disproportionately affected. The number of deaths in police custody and the use of restraint against young black men continues to be shockingly disproportionate, and in the UK government's hostile environment, communities of colour die in detention without the means to investigate what went on.

For Marcia Rigg, the best she can hope for is public outrage to propel her campaign forward – taking palpable anger into filled courtrooms, inquests, and Westminster.

"I think the public pressure is the only thing that can really make a difference," she sighs. "Because in my case, I found that the public's interest has always got me through some of the loopholes. So when they see the public interest, that makes a massive difference. So [I want to] to bring more awareness for other families. Who else will?"

@kieran_yates