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Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

22. What the average (a) waiting time for and (b) duration of an inquest was in the last period for which figures are available. (125134)

The average time from the date of death to the conclusion of the inquest is estimated to be 23 weeks. That is based on the information returned by coroners for 2005. Information about the duration of inquest hearings is not recorded separately.

That is a bit of a shame, because it often takes a very long time for an inquest to be heard. Families who are grieving and want closure on the situation that they have had to face find that very difficult. In places where there are logjams, such as Oxfordshire, would not it make more sense if some cases were not dealt with by the Oxfordshire coroner just because they have come through Brize Norton, but went through the individual areas where people come from?

When I said that information is not centrally recorded, I was talking about the duration of each inquest—how long each one takes to hear. We do keep information about the average time that it takes from the death to get to the hearing.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about needing greater flexibility so that various coroners can help other coroners who have built up a backlog of inquests. That is particularly so in the context of inquests into armed forces deaths that are encountering delays in Oxfordshire. We are trying to sort out the situation as best we can within the current legal framework, which is very rigid and archaic. The coroners reform in our forthcoming Bill will make that much easier to do.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that in future there will not have to be a nearly 10-year delay for an inquest as important as that into the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and delays of years for people killed in the service of their country, costing a fortune, as she knows? Can we have a guarantee that there will be a limit to the time that it takes for an inquest to be opened and the answers given?

One problem is that each coroner’s jurisdiction is entirely self-contained. There are no central performance standards, there is no central monitoring, and there is no chief coroner to provide leadership such as the Lord Chief Justice provides to judges. As a result, while some areas are conducting inquests very promptly, in others there are delays that nobody in this House would regard as acceptable. We will be able to deal with that when we have our legislation on coroners. However, we are not simply waiting until that happens—we are trying to ensure that we get a much better picture of where the delays are and that we work with our colleagues in local government to ensure that there are no such delays. I think that the inquest into the death of Princess Diana was unprecedented; certainly, the length of time taken has been exceptional.