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New Coroner’s rules: what the changes mean for bereaved families and Inquest Solicitors

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    Recent changes in the law aim to create a more efficient and family-friendly inquest service in England & Wales. Will this be acheived by these changes?

    By Ali Cloak

The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 finally came into force in July 2013, after several years in the making. The Act aims to provide a more efficient, modernised coronial system.  This article considers the key changes and what they mean for the bereaved families we represent.

On 25 July 2013 the Coroners and Justice Act (CJA) 2009 came into force in England and Wales. The rules apply to all inquests which had not been completed before that date. The previous rules were set out in the Coroners Act 1984, and there had been much demand for them to be revised in light of excessive delays, bureaucracy and lack of openness with disclosing relevant documents.

KEY CHANGES

The recent changes include:

  • Appointment of Chief CoronerPeter Thornton QC was appointed in September 2012 as the first Chief Coroner. His role is to implement coronial services which are consistent across England and Wales. He will oversee the implementation of the new rules and set national standards for all Coroners as well as training and guidance.
  • TimetablingCoroners are now expected to conclude an inquest within 6 months of it being opened, or as soon as reasonably practicable after that time. Inquests which are not concluded within 12 months are to be reported to the Chief Coroner.  These changes are greatly welcomed. Whilst there will still be inquests which take longer in order to obtain meaningful disclosure of documents or where a criminal investigation is underway, the formal obligation on Coroners to deal with inquest hearings expediently is a very positive step for the families of the deceased. Too often families are left ‘in limbo’ whilst they await inquest proceedings into the death of a loved one, often years after the death.
  • DisclosurePreviously there was no obligation on a Coroner to disclose documents they held. Under the new rules the Coroner must provide a requested document as soon as is reasonably practicable, except where the request is considered unreasonable or irrelevant to the inquest.  This should ensure family members and Inquest Solicitors have sight of all relevant documents in advance of an inquest hearing, which was not always the case previously.
  • Giving EvidenceEvidence can now be given by way of video link or from behind a screen where the Coroner thinks it will improve the quality of evidence being given or if it would allow the inquest to proceed more expediently. This is a much welcomed reform for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses, and may also assist with practical difficulties such as witnesses who live abroad.

The Chief Coroner, HHJ Peter Thornton QC, welcomed the reforms, saying that they will “benefit bereaved families across England and Wales who will be the focus of a more efficient, effective and modern coroner service.”

It will be some time before it will be known whether the new rules have the intended effect on those families involved in the inquest process. However, it certainly seems that positive steps are being taken to make the process more efficient and transparent.

OUR EXPERIENCE:

The law in this area is complex, and entirely separate from other areas of law. The specialist Inquest Solicitors in the Clinical Negligence Team are experienced in representing families in inquest proceedings and fatal accidents claims.

We welcome the rules as our experience has been that families are often left waiting many years for an Inquest to be heard, which is extremely distressing at a time when they are bereaved, and can not really even begin to try to move on while the Inquest is awaited and there are still so many questions to be answered about their loved one’s death.  It is also hoped that the disclosure rules will ensure that all parties to an Inquest receive all relevant information on an equal footing which will assist with ensuring Inquests are conducted fairly and efficiently.

If you are involved in an Inquest and you are uncertain what your rights are then it is important to seek specialist legal advice and the lawyers in the Clinical Negligence Team would be happy to speak with you.

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