On 26 March 2020, the Chief Coroner issued his third note relating to COVID-19.
The note confirms that a group of senior coroners is to engage in regular telephone conferences with the Chief Coroner to discuss planning, capacity, reported death numbers and any additional issues which need to be aired.
Of significance to all engaged in inquest work and, undoubtedly, to families who await the outcome of inquests touching on the deaths of loved ones are proposals in relation to the adjournment of inquests and other hearings.
It is accepted that coroners could see a significant increase in their workload over the next few months, in particular at the report of death and investigation stage. The Chief Coroner also recognises that due to the closure of buildings and increasing pressures in their jurisdiction, some Senior Coroners have already taken action to adjourn all active cases.
The Guidance confirms that:
- All lists of the Senior Coroner, their area coroners and Assistant Coroners should be reviewed, and any jury inquests due to start between 31 March and 28 August 2020 of any significant length, should be adjourned. A Senior Coroner may decide whether or not to set a new date at this stage. The approach hitherto taken by the LCJ and criminal courts is said to be a useful guide in determining whether postponement is necessary. Other considerations will include self isolation of representatives or witnesses, the number of individuals involved in any particular case and we welcome the acknowledgement that this is likely to lead to the postponement of the vast majority of jury inquests.
- Senior Coroners should review and possibly adjourn long or complex inquests which do not involve a jury and are due to start between 31 March and 28 August 2020. Adjournment may be appropriate where a particular inquest requires large numbers of witnesses to give evidence in person. It is recognised that the fact finding nature of an inquest means that many individuals will be required in Court to engage in the proceedings.
- Senior Coroners should not automatically abandon ongoing inquests, including those with a jury. However, practical circumstances due to the Coronavirus such as where individuals involved in the proceedings are self isolating, or otherwise may mean some inquests will have to be re-heard at a later date. Clearly each inquest that is presently listed will need to be the subject of careful consideration as to whether it can feasibly proceed.
- Modern technology such as video links, Skype or other applications should be used to allow individuals to participate in an inquest that is proceeding. Clearly, this may present difficulties where an inquest involves a large number of interested persons, their representatives and witnesses and will be dependent on the quality of internet access for all involved. The Chief Coroner recognises that this will need to be reviewed in relation to less complex inquests beyond 31 March.
- Where possible, pre-inquest reviews and less complex inquests which are listed between now and 31 March 2020, should continue. We agree. It has been the practice of some coroners to hold PIRs by telephone or video conference and it seems appropriate for these to continue. Many inquests with few witnesses and no legal representation may well be capable of being heard.
- Dialogue with Interested Persons is important in relation to whether a particular case should be adjourned. We certainly agree. Each case will involve different considerations in relation to witness attendance, ease of access to facilities for remote participation, availability of representatives and, of course, whether a large number of medical staff are to be called as witnesses. Final decisions in relation to adjournment are to rest with the coroner hearing the matter with a decision on the general position resting with the Senior Coroner for the jurisdiction.
- Senior Coroners should not take a blanket approach in adjourning all cases which require either NHS, police, prison or ambulance staff to give evidence. It is suggested that in shorter inquests, attendance of these witnesses may not impact the public services required due to COVID-19. As set out above, we consider that this should be a matter which needs to be dealt with by a dialogue between the coroner and interested persons.
- For cases which are to proceed, all attendees should follow Public Health England guidance suitably adjusted to reflect the distinct features of a court.
Ultimately, Senior Coroners are able to exercise much discretion when it comes to making listing decisions. In the first instance, we hope that coroners will write to interested persons or their legal representatives to invite views.
In these rapidly changing times, further updates are expected as the recommendations above are put into practice.
Victoria Mortimer, trainee solicitor, BLM