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Family of Molly Russell appealing refusal of legal aid

The family of Molly Russell are appealing the decision by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) which has refused to fund legal representation at her inquest based on the grounds it “is not of wider public interest”.

Posted on 12 March 2019

Fourteen-year-old Molly was found dead in her bedroom in November 2017. Following her death her family learnt that Molly was accessing material online and on social media platform linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide which they believe contributed to her state of mind and her death.

After Molly’s death her family sought legal representation for her inquest to ensure that all the issues surrounding her death could be properly investigated through the inquest process. The family’s legal teams from Leigh Day solicitors and Jessica Elliott and David Hart QC of 1 Crown Office Row have worked on a pro bono basis so far.

The family applied for legal aid to fund their legal representation. On the 29 January 2019 the LAA made its decision to refuse the funding stating that “this matter is not of wider public interest as defined by s10(4) of LASPO 2012. We do not see how and why the investigation in this matter will inevitably lead to significant and material benefits to a large cohort of specific persons”. They also refused the funding on the grounds that they believe that they family can afford to pay their legal fees from their own funds.

The family have now appealed this decision arguing the LAA's decision is flawed. 
The Russell family argue that they have relied heavily on advice from their legal team so far and that this has included research into the disturbing material available online which would not be appropriate for them to conduct themselves.

The family feel that it is unfair the expect them to pay for the full cost of their legal fees given that the inquest is likely to highlight issues which impact on the public as a whole and they have offered to pay a contribution to the costs.

Their appeal is supported by detailed legal submissions , including new arguments that the state’s duty under Article 2 of the Human Rights Act might be engaged given that the government may well have been aware of the significant risk of harm posed to young people by social media before Molly’s death, yet took no action to reduce the risk.
The family have been waiting since 12 February 2019 for a response to their appeal and they have received no response to requests from their lawyers for updates or a timescale for a response.
Ian Russell, Molly’s father, said: “We are now less than a week away from the pre-inquest review hearing in Molly’s inquest and our family are in limbo as to whether we can fund legal representation. We were stunned by the Legal Aid Agency’s decision that Molly’s inquest is not a matter of wider public interest. We know that there are huge numbers of young people out there who are viewing the same kind of disturbing content online and that parents are concerned about what, if anything, is being done to protect young people. We believe that only with proper legal representation can we achieve a full and fearless investigation into Molly’s death, and we urge the Legal Aid Agency to reconsider their decision.”

Merry Varney, solicitor representing the Russell family, said: “The legal aid system for bereaved families at inquests is complicated and restrictive. Despite multiple calls both recently and repeatedly over the last decade to improve and widen the system, the Ministry of Justice rejected it. The rejection of Molly's family's application is unfortunately one of a multitude of examples of how bereaved families are appalling treated while going through the coronial process, and whilst I hope their appeal is successful, it cannot be right for the broken system, propped up by lawyers acting free of charge, not to be urgently addressed.”

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST said: “There is increasing political and public disquiet about the mental health of children and young people, with serious questions about the impact of social media. Molly’s death cannot be ignored and should instead inform work that prevents future harm and deaths.  The inquest into Molly’s death will be an opportunity to publicly scrutinise relevant issues, and therefore serves an important public interest. Her family need legal representation in order to participate fully in this complex process, alongside the large and well-funded corporate bodies who will likely be interested parties.”