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Updating the Coroner System

Volume 516: debated on Thursday 14 October 2010

I wish to make a statement to announce plans for changes to the coroner system in England and Wales.

We believe the proposals I am putting forward today will bring improvements to the system, and address current inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the delivery of services to bereaved families.

We need to create minimum national standards and issue improved guidance on important procedures such as the commissioning of post-mortem examinations, while supporting the local management and delivery of the service.

To that end, we plan to bring forward some of the measures from part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

Our aims are to:

Improve the coroner system so that inquests are timely and bereaved people are provided with sufficient information and support throughout the process.

Improve the effectiveness of inquests, so cases are conducted in the most appropriate district, information is better shared between coroners and other agencies and investigations are better informed by medical advice.

Support local service management and delivery to ensure coroners and their officers have the skills to carry out their jobs and best practice is shared between coroner districts and between the local authorities which fund them.

We will achieve this by:

Commencing provisions enabling operational problems facing coroners to be addressed.

Reviewing and updating the coroners rules.

Issuing and monitoring best practice guidance, including a national charter for bereaved families.

Maintaining and improving training for coroners and their officers.

Encouraging the further establishment of support services provided by the voluntary sector to those attending inquests.

We will make it simpler for coroners to transfer cases between each other, for the convenience of bereaved families and to reduce delays. We will also make it possible for post-mortem and related examinations to take place at the most appropriate specialist centre, by removing the geographical restrictions of the Coroners Act 1988.

We aim to commence these measures in line with the original deadline of April 2012. Some may be brought in earlier than that.

We will continue to work across Government to identify whether and how we can implement other measures in the 2009 Act. We will continue to work closely with Health Ministers to implement proposed new death certification measures so causes of death are recorded more accurately, public health measures are improved, and any improper practices by doctors are detected. In doing so, we will take account of the responses to the consultation paper “Reform of the Coroner System Next Stage: Preparing for Implementation”. I have today published the Government’s response to that paper, and have placed a copy in the Libraries of both Houses.

However, after careful consideration, we have decided that in the current economic climate we cannot go ahead with plans to implement national leadership from a Chief Coroner, an appeals system, or a medical adviser. We have proposed that the abolition of the office of the Chief Coroner should be included in the Public Bodies Bill, which was announced earlier today and we are further considering the transfer of some of the Chief Coroner’s functions to suitable alternative bodies.

His Honour Judge Peter Thornton QC, a Senior Circuit Judge at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), was appointed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, to the post of Chief Coroner under section 35 and schedule 8 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 after those provisions came into force on 1 February 2010 but had not yet taken up his duties. In the light of our intention to abolish the post he will now not do so but I wish to express my gratitude to Judge Thornton for his considerable patience, and advice to the Department, during the period of this policy review.

We will continue to work collaboratively with coroners, local government and police authorities to deliver service improvements. We will also explore with voluntary sector organisations how we can work together better, so as to provide further support for people when they suffer a sudden or unexpected bereavement.

We believe that our proposals will deliver an improved and more flexible service to bereaved families and also to coroners, their staff and others who work within or have an interest in the coronial system. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to their dedication and hard work and to recognise the enormous value of the service they provide.