The administrative court has handed down its judgment in R (Cairns) v HM Deputy Coroner for Inner West London  EWHC 2890 (Admin).
This judicial review case concerned a sadly topical subject, at least in London, namely that of cyclists killed by lorries. With the huge upsurge in Londoner’s taking to two wheels seen during the present Mayoral administration, has regrettably come a number of high profile deaths, leading to calls to rethink street layouts and traffic controls in light of this change in road use.
However, Cairns provides some fairly unremarkable guidance for coroners and parties to inquests. However this case is useful insofar as it reinforces accepted procedures as to the circumstances when an adjournment may be granted; in what circumstances a jury ought to be called; the scope of the inquest; and in what circumstances a coroner should invoke his or her power to make recommendations pursuant to rule 43 of the Coroner’s Rules 1984 (“the Rules”).
Ms Cairn’s (“C”) sister was killed in a road traffic accident with a driver of an HGV (“L”). An inquest date was set to consider the death. L was also due to face criminal charges for driving with defective eyesight at a later date. C made four requests for an adjournment of the inquest. Three were made within four days of the fixed inquest date for the following reasons, namely: (i) her preferred counsel was unavailable; (ii) L had yet to undergo criminal trial; (iii) the time estimate of one-day was incorrect; (iv) additional disclosure was required; (v) additional witnesses should be considered; (vi) the coroner should consider sitting with a jury; and (vii) there had been several accidents in the same area so the local authority should be added as an interested party.
The coroner refused to adjourn. However C was provided with full disclosure within 24 hours of her request, and the local authority confirmed that it did not wish to take part or for the inquest to be adjourned. The inquest went ahead and a verdict of traumatic road death was recorded.
In the JR proceedings, C submitted that the verdict should be quashed and a fresh inquest ordered because the coroner: (i) had acted unreasonably in refusing to adjourn the inquest; (ii) should have considered whether to summon a jury in light of her comment that the case raised matters of public interest in the safety of cyclists; (iii) had unlawfully restricted the scope of the inquest; and (iv) had failed to make recommendations to prevent similar accidents in the future.
As to the issue of whether the coroner was right not to order an adjournment, Silber J held:
(1) it was always possible to instruct another competent barrister;
(2) the coroner was entitled to refuse the adjournment request bearing in mind that appropriate witnesses had been warned and that in her expert view the time estimate was sufficient;
(3) there was no statutory obligation to adjourn pending L's trial for driving with defective eyesight and there would have been no benefit in doing so. If L had been prosecuted for that offence, he would have retained a privilege against self-incrimination for offences such as causing death by dangerous or careless driving because he would always have remained at risk of being prosecuted for a more serious offence than driving with defective eyesight;
(4) the coroner had complied with the disclosure request within 24 hours, and C had not had an unreasonably short period of time to consider it;
(5) the other accidents were not factually similar to the instant case and the local authority had no wish to assist at the inquest or for it to be adjourned;
(6) the coroner had considered that an adjournment was likely to lead to the hearing being delayed for several months, meaning recollections would fade and distress and inconvenience would be caused to witnesses. In the circumstances the coroner was entitled to refuse an adjournment.
As to when a coroner should summon a jury, the court held:
(1) to summon a jury there had to be a prospect that some action could be taken to prevent the recurrence of the accident. In the instant case a collision investigator could not suggest how to prevent the recurrent deaths of cyclists who had come into close proximity to large vehicles, and therefore the pre-condition for summoning a jury was not satisfied;
(2) there were no unusual features distinguishing the accident from other road traffic accidents obliging the coroner to summon a jury;
(3) the court would only quash the verdict for the coroner's failure to summon a jury if no reasonable coroner could have refused to summon a jury, and the instant case could not fall within that category.
As to whether the coroner restricted the scope of the inquest, the court:
(1) reiterated that it was not the inquest's purpose to apportion civil or criminal liability but to ascertain by what means E died (s.11(5)(b) of the Coroners Act 1988 and r.36 of the Rules); and
(2) the inquisition had provided satisfactory conclusions according to this test.
As to whether the coroner was right not to have made a recommendation under Rule 43 of the Rules, it was held:
(1) it is within the coroner's discretion whether to make a recommendation to prevent similar future accidents; and
(2) no facts were put forward to show why it was Wednesbury unreasonable for the coroner to have decided that r.43 of the Rules should not be invoked in this case.
The judgment may well have been different if it had been held there were grounds to suggest that the tragic death of C's sister was not a wholly isolated event. It is likely the procedure of any inquest into the Bow Roundabout deaths may be very different.