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Lord Chancellor guidance on inquest funding to be challenged

Claimant argues confusing and high threshold for legal aid is flawed and unlawful

4 February 2015

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The Lord Chancellor's guidance on legal aid funding for inquests is to be challenged by judicial review this week.

Christopher Letts was aged 29 when in August 2013 he threw himself under a train at Tooting Bec station while mentally unwell.

Mr Letts had been sent by the South London and Maudsley Hospital to the Cygnet, a private hospital in Kewstoke on 12 August 2013 due to a shortage of beds locally.

However, the Cygnet allowed Mr Letts to leave hospital just three days later, despite him having expressed suicidal thoughts and having twice attempted to jump off a balcony at the hospital on 13 and 14 August.

Mr Letts jumped to his death in front of a tube train on 19 August.

The deceased's sister, Joanna Letts, applied for legal aid so as to be represented at the inquest hearing into her brother's death. However, legal aid was refused on the grounds there did not appear to be any failings in the mental health services and so article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to life, was not engaged.

Ms Letts was informed she could represent herself, even though she had no legal experience and is responsible for looking after her four children, and despite the fact that the five other parties, including the Cygnet, were all to be legally represented.

Only after judicial review proceedings were issued against the Legal Aid Agency and the Lord Chancellor did the government agency review its decision and agree to grant funding for the inquest.

Ms Letts has, however, decided to go ahead with the judicial review so other families should not be denied representation at inquests by the high threshold set by the Lord Chancellor's "confusing" guidance.

"The thought that I would not have the help of my lawyer at the inquest and be able to uncover what happened has caused me grief," said Ms Letts. "It would have been a David and Goliath situation and that would have been so unfair. I also don't want other families to go through what I have been through and that is why I am fighting this case."

At the hearing for permission for judicial review in October 2014 the judge found that the denial of legal aid raised issues of wider public importance.

The full judicial review hearing well be held on 5 February, with the inquest into Mr Letts' death listed to start on 23 February.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been granted permission to intervene in the case due to its importance.

 

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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Legal Aid