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Helen Shaw speaks at Rally for Legal Aid 30 July 2013

30 July 2013

Helen Shaw, INQUEST co-director, addressed the Rally for Legal Aid on Tuesday 30 July 2013.  Full text of her speech follows:

A month ago today an inquest jury found that Jimmy Mubenga was unlawfully killed. He was restrained on a British Airways aeroplane whilst being forcibly removed from the UK by G4S security officers. The jury came to this conclusion at the end of an 8 week inquest where his widow Adrienne Kambana was represented by a team of specialist lawyers: solicitor Mark Scott from Bhatt Murphy and barristers Henry Blaxland QC from Garden Court Chambers and Fiona Murphy from Doughty Street.  All of this was made possible thanks to exceptional legal aid.

Had the government’s proposals been in place when Jimmy Mubenga died, his family would have potentially failed the residence test that limits civil legal aid (including exceptional funding for an inquest). It is proposed that entitlement to civil legal aid will only be available to (i) individuals who are lawfully resident in the UK at the time of the application and (ii) additionally, to those who have been lawfully in the UK for 12 months immediately prior to the application.

Although there is an intended exemption on ‘exceptionality’ grounds and/or because the grant of funding is necessary to meet international law obligations, it is unclear how the Ministry of Justice proposes to use these exceptions which in any case would likely have – at the very least – delayed Ms Kambana’s access to justice. And even if the exceptions apply to the inquest, it is unlikely they would apply to a civil claim or any challenge to CPS decision-making.

Jimmy Mubenga’s family could have been left alone to challenge the state and others’ versions of events. At the inquest the MOJ and UK Border Agency were represented by 2 counsel and experienced Treasury Solicitors all paid for using taxpayers’ money. There were also legal representatives for the officers, G4S, the London Ambulance Service and British Airways – all of whom were pursuing their own agendas.

For over 30 years INQUEST has worked with thousands of bereaved people and their lawyers following deaths involving the state. Winning the right to exceptional legal aid for these kinds of inquests nearly 15 years ago was a major victory. Access to specialist legal representation that is publicly funded has been crucial in securing accountability and justice following contentious deaths in custody or involving state agents, not just at the inquest but in challenging decision making at every stage.

Chris Grayling has said that he wants to deliver a legal aid system which commands the confidence of taxpayers and which spends their money wisely. We fail to see how his Department’s current proposals meet this aim. The proposals overlook the importance of specialist legal representation for families, like those of Jimmy Mubenga and Jean Charles de Menezes, for them and the wider public interest. And they do not address the far greater – and increasing – costs to the taxpayer of funding the legal advice and representation automatically given to government and state agencies following a contentious death. All of these proposals must be defeated.

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