A Chief Coroner at long last... but what difference will he make?

24 September 2012

Our first Chief Coroner, Peter Thornton QC, was finally appointed last Thursday to bring much needed consistency and leadership to the coronial system in England and Wales. However, to the disappointment of many, he will not be fulfilling all the functions originally intended and in particular, will not be hearing appeals against inquest decisions. 

The fact that we have a Chief Coroner at all is a small measure of success in a campaign over many years to improve the inquest process. There are around 100 coroners, each resourced separately through their local authority and each with their own approach to the procedure and practice of inquests. One stark illustration is the waiting times for inquests ranging from 10 weeks to one year across different coronial districts. It was intended that The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, passed under the former Labour government, would remedy this state of affairs. Although the Act sets out wholesale revision of the coronial system in response to concerns highlighted over many years, three years on, the only provision relating to inquests which has been enacted is the introduction of the Chief Coroner. And even this was cast into doubt. By October 2010, the Ministry of Justice confirmed that “the current financial situation” meant that the office of Chief Coroner would be abolished before the first appointment was made. However, one year later, the Justice Secretary reversed this decision in a welcome u-turn. 

Therefore, although it was originally intended that the Chief Coroner would be responsible for hearing appeals against the decisions of coroners, the status quo will remain. One avenue for appeal is by judicial review to the High Court. The grounds for judicial review are limited to where the coroner has made a decision which is unreasonable, procedurally improper or unlawful. A further safety net exists in the form of section 13 of the Coroners Act 1988. Where an inquest was deficient, for example, by reason of rejection of evidence, insufficiency of evidence or the discovery of new evidence, the Attorney General can refer the matter to the High Court which may order a fresh inquest. However, neither procedure accommodates cases in which participants seek an independent second review of the evidence.

The justification for this decision is cost. If a second tier of appeals was introduced, given the broader grounds for appeal, the strength of feeling concerning the outcome of inquests and widespread dissatisfaction with the system at present, it is inevitable that there would be a large number of appeals. This should be perhaps even more reason to introduce this second tier. However, given the financial situation shows little sign of easing and the existing mechanisms provide some measure of recourse, it appears more likely that the Government’s intention is to focus upon improving the quality decision making across coroners’ courts before reconsidering the introduction of an appeals process.

Judge Peter Thornton QC’s stated goal is to provide “quality and uniformity in the coroner system” and one of his first tasks will be to set new guidelines for coroners. However, at present, two important functions under the 2009 Act which would have assisted him in furthering his aim have not been enacted. It was intended that the Chief Coroner would provide the Lord Chancellor with an annual report which would include an assessment of consistency in the system. Further, Chief Coroner was able to agree regulations for training of coroners. Even without these responsibilities, the Chief Coroner will be kept very busy in the weeks and months ahead. However, he is only one part of the package of anticipated reform to the coronial system and until such time as the provisions of the 2009 Act are comprehensively enacted, our expectations must remain realistic about what he can achieve.

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