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Coroners and Justice Act 2009

Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 24 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to implement fully the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

My Lords, no. My Written Statement of 14 October outlined those areas of Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that we intend to take forward, such as a charter for the bereaved, and those that, because of the current economic climate, we are unable to progress with, such as the appointment of the chief coroner.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but would he not agree that a consistent standard of coronial practice is an essential ingredient of our civil and criminal justice system and that we do not, alas, have that at present, as a number of recent cases have unfortunately shown? Despite what he has said, the appointment of a chief coroner would ensure the proper and necessary governance arrangements for the coronial system. Will he look again at the proposal in the Public Bodies Bill to abolish the position of chief coroner?

Perhaps happily, that task lies with my noble friend Lord Taylor when the Bill is debated. Is it later today?

It will be next week. The point is that the abolition of the post of chief coroner was taken on cost-saving grounds, which we have not hidden. However, the way in which we have done it enables us within the Ministry of Justice to take on board many of the central themes of the Act and to carry them out from within the department. Among those tasks is the need, which we fully accept, to get a level of consistency of performance throughout the coronial system.

My Lords, Section 51 of the Coroners and Justice Act, supported by the noble Lord when in opposition and indeed strongly encouraged on those Benches by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is not now to be implemented. The section broadened the scope for legal aid so that bereaved service families would get legal aid for an inquest. If it is not implemented, some service families will receive legal aid only if they pass an exceptionality test. Will the noble Lord who speaks for the Government make a firm promise, indeed a guarantee, to the House that legal aid will be given in every inquest where service families ask for it?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We are not taking forward Section 51 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. On military inquests, exceptional funding is almost invariably provided on the basis of a recommendation by the Legal Services Commission. I do not think that there is any question of such funding not being available.

Is it the intention of the Minister or of the Government not to allow legal aid for the families of those who die in custody? If that is the case, will the Minister give an undertaking that neither the Prison Service nor the police will be represented by counsel and solicitors in such inquests?

My Lords, following the welcome Statement to this House from the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, that measures included in the Coroners and Justice Act to improve the treasure system will be implemented, and following the comparatively welcome news this week on funding for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, along with the commitment made by the Culture Minister to review the scope of the Treasure Act in 2011, may I encourage the Minister to continue in this positive vein where archaeology is concerned? What progress have Ministers made towards establishing a national coroner for treasure?

Believe it or not, a national coroner for treasure is not in this brief, so I promise to write to the noble Lord. As a former member of the All-Party Archaeology Group, I hope that progress is being made, subject of course to the financial constraints that we found ourselves in when we took office.

Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons for creating the post of chief coroner was to reduce the costs, both legal and administrative, of defective decision-making? Does he therefore not accept that to fail to proceed with the appointment of a chief coroner is a false economy?

I disagree. The savings are £10 million in set-up costs and £6 million a year in running costs. Although I freely accept that it is a big challenge for the Ministry of Justice, we believe that we can deliver the core measures in the Coroners and Justice Act through the ministry. We have put a great deal of effort into consulting on and then bringing forward a charter for the bereaved, which we hope will deal with many of the problems to which the noble Lord has referred.

My Lords, will the noble Lord place a copy of the costings in the Library so that they can be independently examined?