Families of the Shoreham Airshow crash victims are in a ‘disgraceful’ state of limbo until the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides if it will pursue criminal charges.
Back in August 2015, 11 men died when a Hawker Hunter jet crashed during a display, while pilot Andy Hill survived.
West Sussex Senior Coroner Penelope Schofield has had to postpone a pre-inquest review several times to await a decision by the CPS, announcing this week a full inquest could be held in the autumn if no criminal charges are brought.
The lack of progress was criticised by Tim Loughton, East Worthing and Shoreham MP, during a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday (January 9) where he also blasted the decision to deny the families access to legal aid so they could be represented at an inquest.
He voiced a growing concern the inquest may not happen in 2018 given its dependence on ‘getting prospective criminal proceedings out of the way despite the huge efforts being made by the coroner’.
Mr Loughton added: “The families still have no idea whether anyone will be charged and held responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. That is disgraceful.
“There has been ping-pong between the police and the CPS as to whether files and complete information have been presented to the CPS.
It was confirmed only at the beginning of December that all the files required were with the CPS. Of course we want a thorough investigation of what happened, but does it really need to take this long?
“The CPS needs to make a decision one way or the other as to whether a prosecution can go ahead, and if one cannot, it needs to explain fully to the families why there are not grounds for a prosecution.
“We are in a state of limbo that is holding up the entire process, which is completely unacceptable. Frankly, I would have hoped that the law officers would have played some part in nudging, at least, the CPS to expedite this matter.”
He called the decision by the Legal Aid Agency not to extend funding from the exceptional cases fund to the families of the victims at a coroner’s inquest when it eventually takes place ‘extraordinary’.
The issue was raised with Prime Minister Theresa May in the Commons back in November where she said the Government was committed to ensuring after a public disaster that people are able to have ‘proper representation’.
But months later Mr Loughton suggested Mrs May’s words ‘ring rather hollow’ and the decision not to grant legal funding to the families ‘defies logic’ given the need for expertise to manage the volume of case documents at the inquest.
He added: “This inequality of arms is inequitable and could undermine the inquest’s ability to serve the public interest through a failure to protect rights under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, with the families in effect being left to represent themselves with one hand tied behind their backs.”
The victims lived across Sussex and while the crash happened in Mr Loughton’s constituency, other county MPs have also been involved in lobbying for support for the victims’ families.
Peter Kyle, MP for Hove, described that because many of the victims were the highest earners of the families from which they were taken many ‘are very vulnerable and most unable to tackle these big issues, need the help of Government more than anybody else’.
Meanwhile Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle, added: “With an inquest where all the others appearing will be represented and may have a certain drive to ensure that the inquest goes in one particular direction, and where there will be no prosecution as there would be in a court, it is even more imperative that the families get legal aid, to ensure that there is some semblance of balance for the coroner and guidance.”
In response Phillip Lee, a Parliamentary under secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, said he understood the ‘frustration’ in this case but explained how ministers had no powers to intervene.
He added: “Individual decisions are made independently by the Legal Aid Agency, and it is important that these decisions are, and are seen to be, free from political interference.”