While many coroners have afforded interested persons more flexibility in respect of timelines to disclose documents to them given the current pandemic, two recent examples provide a timely reminder of coroners' powers insofar as disclosure of information and assisting the coroner's inquiry is concerned. While thankfully rare, these examples show the ‘teeth' of coroners' powers and are an important warning for organisations and individuals who are asked to provide written or oral evidence for, or at, a coroner's inquest.
Schedule 5 Coroners and Justice Act 2009
In May 2019, the senior coroner for the Isle of Wight issued a fine to the chief executive of the Isle of Wight NHS Trust in the sum of £500. The fine was issued under Schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 on the basis that the coroner had repeatedly not been informed of the existence of serious incident investigations prior to bodies being cremated.
Schedule 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 allows a coroner to require by notice a person to (1) provide evidence in a witness statement or (2) produce a document if it is in that person's ‘custody or control'.
Fines can be issued up to £1000 if the individual ‘fails without reasonable excuse' to do what is required by the notice.
Schedule 6 Coroners and Justice Act 2009
Also in 2019, the assistant coroner for West London issued a £650 fine to Mr Duncan Lawrence further to his failure to attend an inquest. The legal basis for that fine was schedule 6 part 6 Criminal Justice Act 2009. On 30 October 2019, following a referral to the police, Mr Lawrence was also sentenced to a term of imprisonment of four months. Importantly the noncompliance in this case was much more serious, in that Mr Lawrence had failed to attend the inquest entirely.
Schedule 6 allows a fine of up to £1000 to be imposed where a person intentionally suppresses or conceals a document that is, and that the person knows or believes to be, a relevant document, or intentionally alters or destroys such document.
GMC guidance on ‘Good Medical Practice'
It is also worthwhile to note that paragraph 73 of the General Medical Council guidance on Good Medical Practice requires doctors to co-operate with formal inquiries. This includes coroners' inquests and consequently, a failure to provide evidence required and/or to attend an inquest could result in a referral to the GMC. A similar professional duty applies to other healthcare professionals.
- Ensure you have good systems in place to promptly pick up and acknowledge coroners' requests for disclosure of evidence or summons to attend inquests.
- If you are not sure about any aspect of a coroner's request, or you think you are not going to be able to comply with a direction by the coroner, write to the coroner's officer dealing with the inquest and explain why, as soon as you are aware of those circumstances.
- If you are issued with a Schedule 5 notice, make sure you take notice of the deadline attached to it and that the relevant individuals are informed of that deadline and of the ramifications for failure to comply.
- Organisations should provide support to staff so that they are able to carry out their coronial obligations. Individuals should seek support from their employer or indemnifying organisation, as relevant.
- Above all, don't bury your head in the sand. We know that healthcare professionals are exceptionally busy, not least given current events. However, coroners' investigations are an important part of our legal system and you are under a duty to assist with the coroner's inquiry.
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.