Partially remote hearings for inquests – New Chief Coroner Guidance

On 11 June 2020, the Chief Coroner published his Guidance No 38, ‘Remote Participation in Coronial Proceedings via Video and Audio Broadcast’.  This guidance builds upon Guidance No 35 dealing with hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic which we have commented on in previous blogs.

Since the lockdown began most inquests have been postponed, with coroners opening inquests and holding documentary inquests where no witnesses are called to give evidence.

The current pandemic has seen the  increase in use of partially remote hearings where the court is satisfied that it is just to do so.

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Further guidance issued by HM Coroner – COVID-19 deaths

The Chief Coroner for England and Wales issued further guidance on 28 April 2020 in the form of guidance sheet number 37 addressing COVID-19 deaths and possible exposure in the workplace.  This will be of significance to those involved in inquests or investigations relating to COVID-19 deaths.

He confirms that the vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 arise from the natural progression of this naturally occurring disease and therefore will not be referred to the coroner. He reminds his coroners of the Ministry of Justice guidance on the Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019 which confirms that a death is to be typically considered unnatural if it has not resulted entirely from a naturally occurring disease process, importantly it goes on, where nothing else is implicated.

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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