Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Decades-long fights for justice remain a risk without broad 'duty of candour' and enhanced legal support for families - human rights committee warns

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called on the Government to go further in improving how the state responds to major tragedies. Human rights law requires effective investigations to be carried out into deaths where the state may have been at fault. The Committee calls for stronger measures to require openness from public bodies, and more support for victims’ families to overcome an imbalance in legal support during inquests.

Calls for a Hillsborough Law arose in response to the protracted failure over several decades to uncover and acknowledge the truth of what happened at Hillsborough. The Hillsborough Law Now campaign has led the call for the adoption of specific proposals designed to alter the way in which official inquiries into major incidents are approached and conducted. This report examines the need for these proposals and what progress has been made in implementing them.

The Committee welcomes initial steps by Government to improve the way public institutions respond to public inquiries and to increase the legal support provided to bereaved families. However, it warns that reforms will need to go substantially further if they are to produce meaningful changes in how victims and the public get to the truth.

It observes that public bodies may still prioritise protecting institutional and individual reputations. Also, an imbalance in legal resources between families and public bodies continues to damage effective participation by families in inquests. Further reform will be needed to resolve these issues if inquests and inquiries are to enable bereaved families to understand what went wrong and ensure lessons are learnt to avoid future tragedies.

Victims' advocates could play a crucial role in helping families navigate the maze of rules and procedures that govern how inquiries into major incidents operate. Moves to establish a standing advocate are welcomed, however there are concerns that there could still be delays in appointing individual public advocates to families following a major incident. The Committee calls on the Government to take steps to ensure no delays occur.

Creating a culture of openness

The report warns that “institutional defensiveness” in public authorities remains a barrier to establishing the truth in public inquiries and inquests. Introducing a duty of candour backed by criminal sanctions should improve openness and engagement with official investigations, but further work will be needed to produce the required culture change in public bodies.

The Criminal Justice Bill, currently before Parliament, would require the introduction of a type of duty of candour, but by focusing on the police alone and appearing to rely on internal disciplinary processes for enforcement, this would not meet the calls of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign The Committee calls for reform to be implemented more broadly, with a duty of candour placed on all public bodies.

Access to legal support

An imbalance in legal resources between families and public bodies remains a serious problem and needs to be addressed.

The Committee welcomes steps taken to improve access to legal support to families at inquests and statutory inquiries, including by removing means testing. However, inequality in representation persists. This hinders the effective involvement of families in proceedings, fails to meet human rights standards and ultimately damages the ability of inquests to uncover the truth of events.

It urges the Government to investigate further ways to ensure the legal support available to families is proportionate to that of state institutions. It notes the Government’s commitment to consulting on the extension of legal aid for inquests following public disasters and welcomes recognition that funding for public authorities is out of proportion to that spent on families. However, this must not result in steps being taken that harm the overall quality of representation, the Committee warns.

Publishing the report, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP said:

“All of us on the human rights committee have huge respect and admiration for the courage and fortitude of the families of those who died at Hillsborough and the survivors. Just this week we have also seen how the victims of the infected blood scandal had to go through a similar struggle. It is shameful that their pain was compounded by the delays and obfuscation they faced in their search for the truth, and the decades they had to wait for justice.

“Even so many years later lessons still have to be learnt to ensure that these failures are not repeated. We are calling on the Government to make sure there are cast iron measures in place that give families as much clout at investigations as the public bodies whose reputations are at risk. We also want to see more widespread measures to establish a culture of openness to ensure the truth is not hidden from the public and those involved.”

Channel website: http://www.parliament.uk/

Original article link: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/93/human-rights-joint-committee/news/201678/decadeslong-fights-for-justice-remain-a-risk-without-broad-duty-of-candour-and-enhanced-legal-support-for-families-human-rights-committee-warns/

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