British coroner calls for legal funding for families in Birmingham bombing inquest

A number of relatives of the victims of the IRA bombing had threatened to boycott the inquest amid a row over legal funding

British coroner calls for legal funding for families in Birmingham bombing inquest

Julie Hambleton (centre), who leads the Justice4the21 campaign and whose sister, Maxine died in the Birmingham pub bombings. 28-Nov-2016 Image: Joe Giddens PA Wire/PA Images

A pre-inquest hearing into the Birmingham pub bombings has opened with calls for funding to be made available so the families of all the victims can take part in the inquiry.

The coroner hearing the inquest has backed applications by the bereaved families for legal funding to ensure “proper” representation.

“Not all families will want to be legally represented but for those who do, there is a compelling case for proper legal representation,” said Peter Thornton QC.

Last week marked the 42nd anniversary of the 1974 attack on two pubs that left 21 people dead.

Mr Thornton said he supported the families' claim for legal aid - but had no powers to grant it.

“These were calamitous events and require full and fair investigation, at least as far as the inquest procedures may permit under law,” he told the Press Association.

A number of the victim’s relatives had threatened to boycott the inquest amid a row over legal funding for lawyers of eight of the 21 victims’ families.

A ninth family only received legal aid funding for the initial pre-inquest review hearing.

Mr Thornton said he supported awarding the funding due to the “need for family participation”, the complexity of the inquests and the scale of the atrocity.

It was decided to reopen the inquests in June after Coroner Louise Hunt said there was a “wealth of evidence that has still not been heard.”

The original inquests, which began in the 1970s, were never completed and the West Midlands Police had opposed plans to hold a new inquiry - despite fresh evidence the force may have ignored tip-offs of an imminent IRA attack on the city.

The attack on the night of November 21st 1974 saw 21 people killed and 182 injured as bomb blasts tore into two pubs in the city.

The botched police investigation into the murders led to the infamous wrongful convictions of the Birmingham Six.

In her decision earlier this year, Ms Hunt said she had, “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.”

The Government has rejected calls from the families for a special funding model to implemented - similar to that used in the Hillsborough Stadium disaster inquiry - with the British Home Secretary, Amber Rudd instead backing a plan for the families to receive funding through Legal Aid.

Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was one of those killed in the attack, told the BBC her family’s Belfast-based lawyers deserve financial support.

"If we don't get this funding that will mean that the imbalance of the scales of justice are so bent in one direction towards the state, the inquest cannot possibly move forward," she said.

The British government’s legal aid arrangement would mean Northern Ireland-based lawyers KRW Law would need to partner with an English practice to secure the funding - a solution the firm have told the coroner is “unworkable.”

Ms Hambleton said there is a “discretionary fund” which was made available to the Bloody Sunday families and the Hillsborough families - and could now be used for the families of the Birmingham victims.

"The English legal aid agency funded English lawyers to make a case in Northern Ireland for a civil case for some of the Omagh bombing families,”

“So why oh why are we having to fight and beg with a bowl to get what everyone else has had?" She said.

The full inquest hearings are not likely to start before the end of September next year with the next preliminary hearing due to be heard on February 23rd.