Long overdue changes to laws governing inquests in England and Wales were announced this month. The new rules will see coroners across the country required to adhere to strict rules and timescales.

Each year there are over 30,000 inquests held in England and Wales and individual coroners have been responsible for holding hearings ‘as soon as practically possible’. Unfortunately, this has in some cases allowed for individual interpretation; leaving bereaved families in some areas having to wait years for an inquest to be concluded.

The new changes have been designed to improve the efficiency of the inquest system and ensure these families are not left waiting for years following the death of a loved one.  Coroners will have to complete inquests within six months or ‘as soon as reasonably practicable after that date’ – for example, if the inquest is delayed due to criminal proceedings, or where the death has occurred during military service. Any inquests that last for more than a year must be reported to the newly appointed chief coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC, with reasons for delays.

The new rules will require coroners to discharge the body to the bereaved family as soon as possible – or inform them it will take longer than 28 days – and will also permit the undertaking of less invasive post-mortems. This change follows the government’s consultation with various faith groups which focused on the releasing of bodies for funerals as some faith groups, notably Muslims and Jewish people – had raised concerns about releasing bodies for funerals. 

Similarly coroners will be expected to notify the bereaved within a week of setting the date for a hearing, and grant better access to documents and evidence, such as post-mortem reports before the inquest has taken place. They will also be subject to mandatory training requirements. Justice minster Helen Grant made it clear that the upcoming changes are designed to ensure a consistent approach of putting bereaved families first in the inquest process. She commented: “I want to see all coroners delivering the same efficient service across the board, and we have put these changes in the law so people can be assured inquests are being conducted quickly, with adequate care and the right support available for those who lose loved ones.’

We hope that with these changes a balance can be found between ensuring bereaved families receive answers to their questions in a timely manner, whilst safeguarding the kind of detailed and thorough examination that is the very purpose of our coronial system.  A review to measure the impact of the reform is planned for eighteen months after the new rules come into effect.        

By Kelly Darlington, Inquest Lawyer