The Birmingham pub bombings coroner, hearing inquests into the deaths of 21 victims, has backed a bid for legal funding by bereaved families.
Peter Thornton, QC, one of Britain’s most senior coroners, said: “I commend the application for legal funding for those who are considering them.
“There is a compelling case for proper legal representation.”
Mr Thornton indicated he wanted the funding issue to be settled by early next year.
Yesterday, the coroner convened the first pre-inquest hearing into the 1974 double bombings in Birmingham, in a bid to establish the scope of the proceedings. He also said he had neither the power nor the authority to order funding to be put in place.
On the night of November 21, 1974, the IRA planted two bombs which ripped through two Birmingham pubs, killing 21 people and injuring 182 others.
The botched police investigation into the atrocity led to the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six.
Also in court was human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce, believed to be representing the surviving members of the Birmingham Six.
Mr Thornton said: “I have in mind the gravity of events, the scale of the number of deaths, the investigations to date, the complexity of the investigations and the need for the families’ participation — which is very important. For those reasons, I support the application for funding.”
He expressed hopes funding would be granted — at the latest — six weeks before the provisional date for the next preliminary hearing on February 23.
He also stressed the need for the hearings to be an independent process.
The original inquests, convened in the 1970s, were overtaken by the criminal inquiry by West Midlands Police and never restarted. The force had opposed the holding of new inquests, despite evidence coming to light that police may have allegedly ignored two tip-offs of an imminent IRA attack.
Lawyers for the families have been working for free, while legal teams for the police and other government branches have been taxpayer-funded. West Midlands Police has already set aside £1m (€1.17m) to cover its legal costs.
The UK government had rejected a call from the families for a special funding model similar to that used in the Hillsborough stadium disaster inquiry.
Instead, British home secretary Amber Rudd backed the relatives making an application, under existing arrangements, through the Legal Aid Agency. However, under rules governing the UK’s separate legal jurisdictions, the families’ Northern Ireland-based lawyers, KRW Law, would need to partner with an English law firm to secure legal aid. In court yesterday, Christopher Stanley, of KRW Law, told the coroner such an agreement was “unworkable”.
Mr Thornton also made a public appeal to eight families who have never made contact with the Birmingham coroner’s office to do so if they wanted to be kept informed about the inquests. Full inquest hearings are not likely to start before the end of September 2017.
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