Birmingham pub bombing families are being forced to “pass the hat round” to fund a legal challenge to name the IRA suspects at a fresh inquest, MPs have heard.
The legal aid agency ruled last year that the bid for funding did not meet strict criteria, but a number of Birmingham MPs have challenged this arguing that “justice demands no less”.
Labour MP Richard Burden, who secured a Westminster Hall debate on the issue, read extracts from a legal aid agency letter which cited the families’ fundraising activities to pay for previous hearings as a reason to refuse their application.
Mr Burden described the letter as “astonishing”, he said: “In a letter to one of the law firms representing the families the legal agency went so far as to suggest that the possibility of a further crowdfunding appeal could itself suggest that the families do not need legal aid to present their case.
“I find that suggestion absolutely astonishing. The idea that a case that is in the public interest to be heard should be dependent on how successful the families are in passing the hat round is just quite astonishing.”
Fellow Birmingham MP Jess Phillips also raised concerns about the behaviour of the legal aid agency - telling ministers that one of her constituents had been deemed to have “sufficient resources” to pay for proceedings as they owned a home.
She said: “These are not people with thousands and thousands of pounds in the bank, these are ordinary people who perhaps own very ordinary houses.
“As the state are we saying that if you are just a normal Joe or Jill that actually if you want to seek justice you’re probably gonna have to sell your house?
“What they want is justice and that is not an acceptable standard.”
A total of 21 people died and almost 200 were injured in the attack on Birmingham on November 21, 1974.
The Birmingham Six were later wrongly convicted as a result of a flawed police investigation and spent almost 17 years behind bars before being released.
Original inquests were never properly concluded and the families won permission for new ones in 2016.
DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford), who also spoke in the debate, raised the amount spent on the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in comparison to the Birmingham families.
He said: “When I think of the public money that was spent on an inquiry into the Bloody Sunday Inquiry which saw the death of 13 people.
“I’m in no way trivialising the heartache of those families, but when I see the bill in excess of £195 million I’m flabbergasted to understand the rationale which has not allowed the families to seek legal justice through the legal system.
He later added: “Are the lives of these 21 people not enough, are they simply the wrong people who were killed?”
Lucy Frazer, responding on behalf of the Government, said that a review was currently under way into the operation of inquests to make them “less adversarial.”
The Justice Minister offered sympathy for the points raised by MPs, but said: “I fully appreciate that for the families the decision of the legal aid agency very frustrating.
“But it’s important to point out, the funding decision are made by the legal aid agency independently of ministers.
“I am not privy to the details of the decision and the decision about whether to provide legal aid funding in an individual case should not be a political one.”