The Birmingham pub bombings coroner, hearing inquests into the 21 victims’ deaths, has backed applications by the bereaved families for legal funding for “proper” representation.
Peter Thornton QC, one of the country’s most senior coroners, said: “I commend the application for legal funding for those who are considering them.
“Not all families will want to be legally represented but for those who do, there is a compelling case for proper legal representation.”
Mr Thornton had on Monday convened the first pre-inquest hearing into the 1974 double bombings to try to establish the scope of the proceedings.
He made his views known after stressing he had neither power nor authority to order funding be put in place.
But Mr Thornton said: “I do wish to say I support the applications of those families who wish to participate fully in these inquests by way of legal representation.”
He added: “The events of November 21 1974 brought about the tragic deaths of 21 people.
“These were calamitous events and require full and fair investigation, at least as far as the inquest procedures may permit under law.”
The hearing had been taking place at the city’s civil justice centre amid a row about legal funding for lawyers of eight of the 21 victims’ families.
A ninth family, who have received legal aid, have only received funding for the initial pre-inquest review hearing.
Relatives of some of those killed had stepped back from a threat to boycott Monday’s proceedings, turning up with banners and placards calling for justice for their dead loved ones.
Their solicitors, and that of the ninth family, raised the issue directly with Mr Thornton.
Giving his views, the coroner said he supported such funding because of the importance of “the need for family participation”, and the “gravity” of the bombings, the scale of the atrocity and the “complexity” of the inquests.
Campaigners for the Justice4the21 group spearheaded a successful bid earlier this year to have the original inquests resumed.
On the night of November 21 1974, the IRA planted two bombs which ripped through the Tavern in the Town and nearby Mulberry Bush pubs, injuring 182 others.
The botched police investigation into the terrorist atrocity led to the wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six - one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice.
Monday’s hearing is the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy inquest process, since the families won a ruling from Birmingham senior coroner Louise Hunt for new hearings earlier this year.
The original inquests, convened in the 1970s, were overtaken by the criminal inquiry by West Midlands Police and never resumed.
The force had opposed the holding of new inquests, despite fresh evidence coming to light that police allegedly may have ignored two tip-offs of an imminent IRA attack in the city.
But Ms Hunt, giving her decision earlier this year, said: “I have serious concerns that advanced notice of the bombs may have been available to the police and that they failed to take the necessary steps to protect life.”
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 have already set aside £1 million to cover their legal costs.
The Government had rejected a call from the families for a special funding model similar to that used in the Hillsborough stadium disaster inquiry.
Instead, 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 on Monday, Christopher Stanley, of KRW Law, told the coroner such an agreement was “unworkable”.
The Government has said it wants all the families to be legally represented at the inquests, and suggested a workaround to the impasse.
It emerged during the hearing that the West Midlands police and crime commissioner had written to the families suggesting the legal aid authorities in England and Wales meet their counterparts in Northern Ireland to see if an agreement on funding can be reached.
Mr Thornton also made a public appeal to the eight families who had never been part of the campaign to reopen the inquests to make contact with the Birmingham coroners office if they wished to take part in the forthcoming hearings.
He added: “I would invite any of them, should they wish, to make contact with the coroners office in Birmingham so at the very least I can inform them of the progress of proceedings.”
Full inquest hearings are not likely to start before the end of September 2017, with the next preliminary hearing to be heard on February 23.