piBlawg

the personal injury and clinical negligence blog

A collaboration between Rebmark Legal Solutions and 1 Chancery Lane

Coroners, Consistency and Change

  Harold Macmillan is famously said to have observed that:   “There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers”.   To this list should perhaps be added the Royal British Legion.   The Coroners and Justice Act (CJA) 2009 contained legislation to reform the process of death investigation and certification in England and Wales to deal with the shortcomings of single doctor death certification identified in the Shipman Inquiries. It also created the new office of Chief Coroner (CC).     In October 2010, Jonathan Djanogly, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice announced that some of the provisions of the CJA 2009 would not be implemented. These included the office of CC.   Following widespread public criticism, including a message to all members of parliament from the Royal British Legion which appeared prominently in a number of national newspapers, the government relented.   Kenneth Clarke, then the Justice Secretary, announced that he had “listened and reflected on the concerns” and the office of CC would be created after all.   In May 2012 the Lord Chief Justice in consultation with the Lord Chancellor appointed Judge Peter Thornton Q.C. as the first CC of England and Wales.   On 1 July 2014 the CC presented to the Lord Chancellor his first annual report which can be downloaded free of charge from the government’s website:   https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/330652/chief-coroner-annual-report-july-2014.pdf   The report covers the period from 25 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 and contains information which will be of interest and help to all lawyers doing coronial work. In particular the report includes sections on:   The training of and the guidance now provided to coroners. The appointment of coroners and the merging of certain coroner areas. Investigation and inquest processes. Delays in investigations. Prevention of future death reports.   As the report recognises much work still needs to be done. But the CC can take credit for the fact that more hearings are now held in public, all hearings are recorded, most inquests are or soon will be held within six months and there is now better and earlier disclosure to interested parties.   Currently in England and Wales there are 99 separate coroner areas. We await with interest next year’s report to see if the CC’s stated intention to reduce these to about 75 areas, each being an appropriate size in terms of numbers of deaths reported geographically and special work - prisons, major hospitals, mental health institutions and airports – will result in further improvements to the coronial service overall.

Government U Turn on the office of Chief Coroner

Those of you who have any regular involvement in or contact with the coronial process will no doubt have shared my sinking feeling when it was announced during the bonfire of the quangos that the office of Chief Coroner was not going to be implemented.  I was surprised and pleased to see that yesterday Ken Clarke announced a u-turn on this issue, although in limited form. The background to this development is that the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 provided for the appointment of a Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroner.  The purpose of these roles was to provide national leadership for the coronial system in England and Wales, with aims to improve standards.  The Chief Coroner was also intended to provide a new route of appeal from inquests, removing the cumbersome and expensive requirement to judicially review decisions, however small.  In October 2010 the government announced that, in the current economic climate, plans to implement the office of Chief Coroner would not proceed.  The government proposed to abolish the office of the Chief Coroner and to transfer some of the Chief Coroner’s functions to alternative bodies.  The Public Bodies Bill was the means by which it was intended that the office would be abolished, although the provision enacting this power was defeated in the House of Lords in December 2010.  Thereafter the plan became not to abolish the office, but to provide that the functions could be transferred elsewhere.  The plan not to enact the office of Chief Coroner has been very unpopular and heavy opposition has been mounted by charities such as the Royal British Legion.  Yesterday Mr Clarke said in a statement: "Over recent months I have listened to and reflected on the concerns raised across Parliament, by families and by other groups, including the Royal British Legion, that a single figure needs to be responsible for the coroner system. "I am prepared to have one last try to meet those arguments and so have taken the decision to implement the office of the chief coroner. "The existing mechanisms for challenging a coroner's decision will remain in place and will avoid the need for expensive new appeal rights. The new post will be focused on working to deliver the reform to coroners' services that we all want to see and which I previously argued should be delivered by the Lord Chief Justice and myself. "Everyone is agreed that the priority is raising the standards of coroners' inquiries and inquests to ensure that bereaved families are satisfied with the whole process. "I am therefore giving the chief coroner the full range of powers to drive up standards, including coroner training, as well as setting minimum standards of service through the new Charter." So... partial good news then.  The central oversight of the coronial system that is so desperately needed will be implemented.  Unfortunately however, we are stuck with JR for the foreseeable future as the route of appeal against controversial decisions.