Summary of the Government's recent response to the Coroner's Service Inquiry Report.
It has been a tough time during the Pandemic for those practising in the area of complex inquest work. There remains a significant back log of cases in many Coroner jurisdictions and especially in cases that require a jury. Many hearings are still being vacated and often at the last minute. At the other end of the scale difficult cases are being listed quite late in the day and often creating difficulties for all involved in terms of ensuring there is sufficient support for the bereaved as well as proper opportunities for attendance and representation at any hearing. The pandemic recovery therefore remains challenging in this jurisdiction.
As we manage day to day practice in these circumstances and try to keep an eye on the latest case law in this area, particularly the ever growing body of cases concerning the engagement of Article 2, one might be forgiven for missing some of the important developments around the periphery of the coronial jurisdiction. There have been two..
Firstly, the new guidelines published by the Bar Standards Board for legal professionals practising within the Coroner's Courts on 13 September 2021 which would be well worth a read. But secondly, and what I want to look at in this article, is future changes that may (or may not) happen in light of the Government's response in September 2021 to the UK Parliament's Justice Select Committee's inquiry report on The Coroner's Service (The Coroner's Service Inquiry May 2021).
The Justice Committee's Inquiry was required to examine the effectiveness and capacity of the Coroner Service and whether, in particular, enough progress had been made in improving the bereaved person's experience of the Coroner Service. The key recommendations made as a result of the inquiry were:
- A creation by the MOJ of a National Coroner Service for England and Wales.
- A call for funding for greater support services for bereaved people at inquests and in every locality.
- The provision of legal aid to be automatically available for the bereaved at the most complex inquests.
- Solutions to improve access to pathology services.
- A request for a new body to oversee public safety risks that Coroners and inquest juries have identified and a better system to monitor and take actions to reduce these risks.
The Government's response published on 10 September 2021 shows that much is to be done and there was a mixed response to the recommendations with some being accepted and some not. In fairness the response goes further on a number of matters, all worth noting, regardless of who you may act for in an inquest:
- The MOJ Guide for bereaved families was refreshed in January 2020 and is available online with some hard copies provided to each Coroner's office. Access to this document may be vital for those bereaved who cannot be represented at inquests and should be more widely brought to their attention.
- Non-legal support in court from bodies such as the Coroner's Court Support Service (CCSS) which provides trained volunteers to provide practical and emotional support at an inquest has been given value and it is recognised by the Government that support services should be extended. However, this remains subject to affordability, as was noted in the 2019 'Final Report on Legal Aid for Inquests', and the Government has not accepted the recommendation at this time for an extension of these services without further detailed work being undertaken as to cost and the legal and commercial issues related to such services.
- The Chief Coroner is to provide a detailed response to the Committee's requests around strengthening the access to documents early in the inquest process and for all concerned.
- Public bodies and Government Departments with interested person status at an inquest should approach an inquest with openness and honesty and in accordance with the duty of candour.
- The Government has continued to maintain its view that the inquest process is intended to be inquisitorial and that legal representation should not be necessary at all inquests. However, the Government will further respond to any recommendations concerning legal aid in response to the Bishop James Jones Report in due course. For now, where representation may be funded via the ECF scheme, then access to this funding should be made simpler and without the burden of a financial means assessment. Therefore legislation will aim to remove the means test for applications for ECF for legal representation at inquests.
- There is no response at this time to the recommendation that the method of appealing the decision of a coroner (presently via Judicial review) should be altered to include a dedicated appeal route.
- Further work will be done to examine the delivery of pathology services to Coroners including funding and the consideration of specialist pathology centres of excellence.
- The call for a national coroner service is rejected.
- Work will be done to ensure that PFD reports are made more accessible and consideration will be given to tightening up the link between PFD reports and public safety..it just doesn't say how this might be done.
- Lastly of note, the pandemic recovery process is to be strengthened and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and will include these important further measures; (i) PIR hearings and inquests can be remote and for all participants, including the Coroner, (ii) Non contentious cases can be held without an in-person hearing, (iii) A coroner investigation can be discontinued without a post-mortem examination where the cause of death is natural.
So funding, the duty of candour, more remote hearings, access to documents and a dedicated appeals route... Maybe? At least, these issue of importance remain on the table and the radar of the Government. I will endeavour to keep you updated!
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.