There is much anger in the media today about the news that Hashem Abedi, brother of Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi will have the benefit of legal aid to defend criminal proceedings brought against him. The Daily Mirror complains that he will have public funds to cover his legal costs whereas the families of victims have struggled to get legal aid for representation at the inquests.
The anger is, on this occasion, entirely understandable although the basis of the argument itself is flawed.
We have two different types of legal aid in play here. Mr. Abedi is entitled to state funded support because he is being prosecuted by the state. The Government’s Guidelines for Criminal Legal Aid say that the more serious the charge or possible consequences, the more likely it is that a Defendant will be granted legal aid. It is inevitable that he will face a trial in the Crown Court. Cases before that court are deemed to satisfy that test of seriousness. There is no real argument against Mr Abedi having legal aid for his defence. It is an entitlement for those facing action by the state. It is not deserved or earned by merit. It is there to ensure that those who might be imprisoned by the state are properly represented.
This is very different from Civil Legal Aid to enable families to be represented at an inquest. There is no automatic entitlement. Funding can only be granted in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances are as follows –
‘In the context of an inquest, the most likely wider public benefits are the identification of dangerous practices, systematic failings or other findings that identify significant risks to the life, health or safety of other persons.’
I recently discussed this in relation to the case of Molly Russell whose family were, initially, refused legal aid despite the major concerns about the role of Social Media in her death.
The Manchester bombing inquests are clearly of major public interest. What greater example of an event that involved significant risks to life, health or safety? Of course, the families should be granted legal aid. This was an atrocity of such magnitude that no expense should be spared to ensure that the families have answers to the questions, and so that we can be re-assured that no stone will be left unturned. We want to know what can be done to ensure that this never happens again. It should be an automatic entitlement to state funding, that does not depend on the finances of the families –
The argument is not – ‘they don’t get legal aid so why should he?’
Both should be equally entitled to legal aid for different but extremely important reasons.