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Categorized | Law Updates

Abolition of the office of the Chief Coroner

Abolition of the office of the Chief Coroner

Last year this column had cause to comment several times on the bill that became the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 as it made its progress through Parliament. The Act received Royal Assent on 12 November 2009 after receiving, importantly in view of current events, cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament.

The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Act. The role was designed to introduce national leadership of the coroner service, a crucial step in tackling unacceptable delays, inconsistent standards of service delivery and lack of accountability. The Act also contained measures to introduce a Medical Adviser to the Chief Coroner, deliver an improved service for bereaved people, including the introduction of a Charter for Bereaved People, and a system of appeals against coroners’ decisions. It also introduced national standards that coroners should meet, supported by training and guidance.

Then came the hammer blow. In a House of Commons Written Ministerial Statement on 14 October 2010, Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly said: “However, after careful consideration, we have decided that in the current economic climate we cannot go ahead with plans to implement national leadership from a Chief Coroner, an appeals system, or a medical adviser. We have proposed that the abolition of the office of the Chief Coroner should be included in the Public Bodies Bill…and we are further considering the transfer of some of the Chief Coroner’s functions to suitable alternative bodies.” He went on to say: “We will continue to work collaboratively with coroners, local government and police authorities to deliver service improvements. We will also explore with voluntary sector organisations how we can work together better, so as to provide further support for people when they suffer a sudden or unexpected bereavement.” Peter Thornton QC, a Senior Circuit Judge at the Central Criminal Court, had been appointed to the post of Chief Coroner but had not yet taken up his duties. Now he won’t.

This announcement has provoked widespread dismay. The Royal British Legion had welcomed the original legislation, believing that the establishment of a Chief Coroner’s Office was critical to improving the working of the inquest system in relation to military inquests and provided necessary reforms to the inquest system, such as oversight and monitoring of investigations into Service deaths, compulsory training for coroners carrying out military inquests, and new rights of appeal for families. Reacting to the abolition, Chris Simpkins, Director General of the Legion, said: “We are concerned that the families of our fallen heroes will no longer have confidence that the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths will be thoroughly investigated.” He added: “We believe this decision would be a deep betrayal of bereaved Service families.”

INQUEST, a charity which provides free legal advice to bereaved people, also condemned the announcement. Deborah Coles, Co-Director, said: “The dysfunctional and flawed inquest system is in need of complete reform. It is dishonest to suggest today’s proposals to tweak rules and regulations will deliver the fundamental change that is needed urgently.” She added: “Not only does this decision fail bereaved families but also society, which should have an inquest system fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The inquest is usually the only public forum in which contentious deaths such as accidents, deaths at work, deaths in custody or deaths of military personnel are subjected to public scrutiny. The current system is failing to perform its preventative function. Today’s announcement by the Coalition government will frustrate the opportunity to create a system which saves lives. This is a false economy if there ever was one.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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