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28 November 2016, 05:49
Fresh inquests into the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings are to get under way amid a war of words between lawyers and the Government about legal funding.
One of the country's most senior coroners, Peter Thornton QC, will convene the first pre-inquest hearing into the 1974 double bombings in Birmingham, to try and establish the scope of the proceedings.
However, the hearing at the city's civil justice centre will be taking place amid a row about legal funding for lawyers of eight of the 21 victim's families.
Relatives of some of those killed have stepped back from a threat to boycott Monday's proceedings, but their solicitors are expected to raise the funding issue with Mr Thornton at the public hearing.
Campaigners for the Justice4the21 group spear-headed 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 over-taken 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 may have allegedly 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.''
The victims' relatives will be holding a public protest calling for an "equality of arms'' on legal funding, ahead of the inquest hearing.
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 has already set aside £1 million to cover its 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.
Julie Hambleton, who leads the Justice4the21 campaign and who lost her 18-year-old sister Maxine in the blasts, said: "Our Government is holding us to ransom, using delaying tactics to stop us getting legal funding and parity.''
Speaking last week, Christopher Stanley, of KRW, said: "We have to work within their rules, but we cannot comply with them - therefore we're blocked.''
One other family, represented by Liverpool firm Broudie Jackson Canter - who were involved in the Hillsborough inquiry - have been granted legal aid.
The Government has said it wants all the families to be legally represented at the inquests, and suggested a work-around to the impasse.