Plans to reform the inquest system in England and Wales were struck at the heart yesterday as the Ministry of Justice announced that the planned post of Chief Coroner is to be abolished. The long anticipated ‘Coroners and Justice Act 2009’ received the Royal Assent on 12 November 2009, making several proposals for reform, notably including appointing a national Chief Coroner. The axing of this position has several implications on the inquest system, especially in relation to the right of bereaved families to appeal decisions made during inquest hearings.
The current Coronial system is often criticised by Inquest practitioners for being outdated, under resourced and inaccessible to bereaved families. It has been a long and difficult battle to push this Act through Parliament, with the Coroners Act 1988 effectively mirroring the old Victorian laws surrounding the coronial system.
It was perhaps in some way anticipated that this might have been an area effected during the government’s attempts to get the country out of the economic mess we find ourselves in. I note from the ministerial statement that it is intended they will implement some of that which is highlighted in the Act, in particular by commencing provisions to enable operational problems facing coroners to be addressed, reviewing and updating the Coroner’s Rules, issuing best practice guidance and a charter for bereaved families and encouraging the further establishment of support services for those involved in the inquest procedure.
However, the office of the Chief Coroner was at the heart of the reform and is what gave those of us who represent bereaved families hope for future reform of the system. It is disappointing that as a result of the Chief Coroner position being axed, there will no longer be provisions for the family to be able to appeal decisions made by coroners during the inquest proceedings. At present if a decision is made about issues surrounding the investigation, for example the instruction of a second post mortem or whether it should be a jury inquest, the only recourse open to the family is to apply for leave to judicial review. Those proceedings can be difficult and costly for the family. The new appeal process would have allowed the family to appeal directly to the Chief Coroner, without having to worry about the costs of court applications and the associated problems of bringing a judicial review.
I hope that the Coalition Government now stick to their promise, that they will continue to work collaboratively with coroners and those associated with the systems to ensure that at least some implementation and reform is achieved, however considering the system is now over 100 years old I believe it is a missed opportunity to put something in place that could have revolutionised this area of law.