Relatives of those killed in one of the most deadly terror attacks in Britain are crowdfunding to pay for legal representation to challenge a "significant" court ruling after they were turned down for legal aid.
Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was one of 21 people killed in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, told BuzzFeed News the decision to deny legal aid was “outrageous". She said the case showed there wasn't equality of arms – part of the right to a fair trial – in Britain’s legal system.
The families are fighting a ruling that IRA members suspected to be behind the bombings will not be named at fresh inquests into the deaths. The senior coroner, Peter Thornton, ruled that trying to identify suspects could be viewed as “a proxy trial”.
Six men, known as the Birmingham Six, were originally convicted of the attacks and served 17 years in prison before they were acquitted and freed in 1991. Nobody has been held to account for the crime since.
The families were given permission for a judicial review of a decision not to identify suspected bombers in the upcoming inquest after a High Court judge ruled the challenge was in the public interest. Despite this, the legal aid agency said they did not meet strict criteria for exceptional case funding, which includes a subjective assessment of how likely someone is to win.
Although the families have legal aid for the inquest itself, that cannot take place until a decision is made in this judicial review. The families argue that getting the right outcome in this first case is crucial to getting justice in the inquest.
Hambleton said: “This judicial review is the most significant event in our plight to achieve justice and accountability because we could not, in all good conscience, sit back and allow the coroner’s decision to exclude the perpetrators from being mentioned in the inquest.”
Exceptional case funding was designed to be a safety net to the legal aid cuts introduced after 2012. It is intended for anyone who might not ordinarily qualify for legal aid but whose case or circumstances means going without a lawyer would be in breach of their human rights. BuzzFeed News has been exposing the impact of the cuts, which were passed into law by the coalition government in 2012 through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
The families have raised around £17,000 of the £20,000 they need for the two-day hearing, which starts on 6 December. A GoFundMe page has raised more than £4,000, and there will be a final cash drive this weekend as buckets are rattled at football matches around the country.
Hambleton says that including the perpetrators in the scope of the new inquest “means everything” to her and the other families affected. “Maxine and the 20 others did no harm to anybody,” she said. “What did they do in their lives to be treated with such contempt in their deaths? Where’s our judicial system now to represent them?”
Two bombs went off simultaneously on 21 November 1974 in two Birmingham city centre pubs, the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town, killing 21 and injuring 182.
This summer a self-confessed IRA bomb-maker, Michael Christopher Hayes, admitted he had a role in the bombing. Hayes said the bombs were not intended to kill people and that there had been eight minutes between the police being warned of the bomb’s location and it going off.
Hambleton’s sister Maxine was in the Tavern in the Town when a bomb went off, and she died of her injuries.
Without the fundraising, Hambleton says, there was no way the families could afford the legal costs. She only works two days a week and said that many of the other relatives are now retired and that none of them earns close to enough to cover the costs.
She believes the case is “a clear illustration of the inequalities in this country” and shows that there “is no equality of arms” in Britain when it comes to legal funding.
The legal team for the police and Home Office will be covered by public funds – as well as the cost of the coroner. Hambleton said: “What are we paying our taxes for? What is the point of us going to work and when you need the help, where is it? What have we done wrong to be treated with such contempt?”
Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, said: “These families have experienced unimaginable suffering with the trauma of the bombings and the loss of their family members. It goes against the principle of natural justice, fairness and the pursuit of truth when the legal process is heavily weighted in favour of one side. We need a system where when the state funds one party’s legal representation, it ensures proper legal aid funding for legal representation of the family of the deceased.”
Lee, one of those fundraising at football matches this weekend who didn’t want his surname published, said he had been moved to help after seeing coverage of their families’ legal battle. He said without legal aid none of those campaigning had enough money to help. “We haven’t got a millionaire amongst us, unfortunately," he said. "We’re just working-class people."
This weekend volunteers will be shaking buckets to raise cash at several football clubs, including Millwall, Rangers, and West Bromwich Albion.
Belfast law firm KRW Law has been working pro bono on the case but is likely to be reluctant to work for free indefinitely – and money is needed for barrister’s fees.
Christopher Stanley, part of the KRW legal team working on the case, said: “Why should people who lost their loved ones 40-odd years ago be expected to pay to challenge the coroner?”
He added: “We’ve been working pro bono now for three years and we haven’t received anything in terms of legal aid.”
Speaking about the need for the suspected bombers to be included in the inquest, Stanley said: “We want perpetrators ruled into the scope. The issue of who bombed them: who made the bombs, placed them, detonated them. We don’t see how you can not look at the perpetrators but you can look at informers.”
He added: “We’ve got a potential perpetrator who’s identified himself. It seems a bit odd not to look at him.”
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: "Our deepest sympathies remain with the families of the victims of the horrific Birmingham pub bombings. Funding for legal aid applications need to satisfy the strict criteria set by law.
“The Legal Aid Agency is entirely independent of Ministers and the Lord Chancellor, and any allegations to the contrary are completely unfounded.”