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Coroners' Inquests

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 27 March 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I reassure the Minister and the House that I am aware of the sub judice rules, both as they affect what the Minister can say and, indeed, what supplementaries may be asked.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to review the law and procedures regarding coroners’ inquests.

My Lords, the Government remain fully committed to coroner reform, and a Bill will be brought before Parliament when parliamentary time allows. Today my honourable friend Bridget Prentice published a briefing note outlining how the provisions in our draft Bill have changed following extensive consultation. Ahead of legislation we will strengthen Rule 43 of the Coroners’ Rules 1984.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s intention as regards new legislation. In approaching the new Bill, will they ensure that bereaved families are kept fully informed about inquests, that where possible very costly inquests are avoided altogether, that there should not be long delays in holding inquests and that it is not acceptable that inquests should be used to cause distress to the families of the deceased?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to suggest that the needs of families should be fully considered. I very much accept that proposition. We are committed to producing a charter for the bereaved alongside legislation. A draft of that charter will be produced later in the year and noble Lords will be invited to comment on it.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on the Government’s alterations to the draft Bill that were published today. They have significantly improved the Bill and done a lot of things that stakeholders—if I may use that expression—have asked for. But the families are still without a right of representation. They have a right of appeal but there is nothing in the Bill about a right of representation and a right to make submissions to the coroner, or to a coroner’s jury, about the evidence to assist the coroner in coming to his verdict. Will the Government take that on board before the full Bill is published and consider whether something should be done to ensure that families are properly represented and that at the end of the inquest they can make submissions on what the verdict should be?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome for some of the changes that will be made to the Bill as a result of the consultation. He will know that legal aid for representation—that is one of the issues, as is representation in general—is not considered appropriate in many inquests because an inquest is a fact-finding process; it is not an adversarial conflict between different parties. That is why we are very reluctant to do down the path that he suggests.

My Lords, as verdicts by coroners’ juries are restricted to prevent them reaching verdicts of guilt, will the noble Lord assure the House that those with authority will take steps to ensure that in future coroners’ inquests cannot be exploited by unstable or malicious individuals for personal gain or vengeance?

My Lords, I do not think that I am going to comment on the specifics of what the noble Lord has suggested. Currently, 98 per cent of all coroners’ inquests are held with a coroner sitting without a jury, but I am sure that where juries do sit we can rely on the overall leadership of the coroner. Part of the proposals that will be brought forward in legislation is for there to be a national service, locally run, with a chief coronial officer who can give the professional leadership that is required.

My Lords, will the charter to which the noble Lord referred be a statement of aspirations, or will it have legal force; and if so, what force will it have?

My Lords, it will depend on the Coroners Bill becoming law but, assuming that that goes well, our intention is that the charter for the bereaved would have the status of statutory guidance. It will have considerable strength as a result.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the present arrangements for belated inquests on those killed on operations, with coroners who have little military knowledge speculating on what might have been done in equipment or command terms to avoid the death, are both misleading and very distressing for the families concerned? Why can there not be a roving coroner with some specialist knowledge who goes to the area of operations and, where appropriate, records a verdict of killed on active service?

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord raises a matter of considerable interest. He will know that there has been concern about the delays in the holding of a number of military inquests. We have taken action. We have provided extra funding to the coroners that are particularly concerned and we have worked very closely with the organisations representing families. There has been a big improvement in the progress of those inquests. I think the noble and gallant Lord is suggesting the creation of specialist military coroners. We are not persuaded that that is a route down which we should go. We believe that all coroners ought to be able to deal with all inquests. Our understanding is that coroners around the country have been handling these inquests effectively and quickly. The development of a national service with a chief coroner will enable there to be much greater consistency and professional leadership in the future.

My Lords, will the Minister take into account the views of the Independent Police Complaints Commission in any reforms, particularly in relation to deaths in police custody?

Yes, my Lords, I am very happy to do that. I am sure that when the Bill comes before your Lordships’ House we will want to debate that.

My Lords, is it true that in inquests into killed in action cases, the Ministry of Defence has so far spent more than £1.5 million on legal representation, whereas relatives are unable to get any legal aid at public expense because a coroner’s court is not a court of law? Is that not grossly unfair and a betrayal of the military covenant? Will the Government cease to hide behind the arrangements for coroners’ courts in the case of those who have been killed in action and allow relatives to have legal aid at public expense when attending an inquest into the death of a loved one?

My Lords, I understand the concerns expressed by the noble and gallant Lord. I have already said that legal aid is generally not available because an inquest should be seen as a fact-finding process. As for MoD representation, that is often because a coroner feels that it can assist the inquest in the finding of facts. There are provisions for allowing legal aid to be provided in exceptional circumstances for inquests in cases such as the noble and gallant Lord described. Legal aid funding has been given to a number of families of soldiers or Armed Forces personnel who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I think that we have a proportionate system.