How is COVID-19 affecting inquests and the work of coroners?

Guidance has been issued by the Chief Coroner with regard to the effect on inquests and the work of Coroner’s during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Effect on hearings/investigation

In common with other court hearings, the guidance confirms that no physical hearings should take place at present unless essential and urgent.  The alternative is to hold such hearings remotely via video-link.  But a general principal of coronial hearings is that they should take place in public and this would be hard to do via video-link.  The Chief Coroner’s guidance suggests that a coroner conducting the hearing from a court with a member of the press in attendance and a family member present would mean the hearing had been held in public.

Many coroners are medical professionals and of course may be deployed to front line duties, so unable to prioritise inquest work at present.

In any case, we would expect that inquests are likely to be adjourned for several months at least due to staffing shortages and delays in investigations.

Another effect of COVID-19 is that carrying out a post mortem may be difficult at present due to lack of availability of pathologists and their staff, lack of post mortem and storage facilities, and also infection risk.  If a post mortem cannot be carried out in sufficient time, then the guidance says the coroner should take a pragmatic approach and carry out investigations as best they can.

COVID-19 as cause of death

COVID-19 can be recorded as a cause of death and is a notifiable cause of death that should be notified to Public Health England.  But, a death from COVID-19 is not a reason of itself to make a referral to  the coroner.  Instead reasons why the matter should be referred to the coroner might include:

  • Concerns about care or delays of care in the lead up to death
  • Failure to provide PPE or protect employees
  • Unclear cause of death
  • Deaths that require referral to the coroner in any case such as a death in state detention

It remains to be seen how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the claims market in the future.  The media has highlighted in the last week regarding the strain the social care and health care sectors are under with regard to lack of sufficient PPE, as well as delays in treating patients.

A full copy of the Chief Coroner’s Guidance can be found here.


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Written by Jennifer Johnston at BLM.

jennifer.johnston@blmlaw.com

 

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