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Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 03:07 GMT 04:07 UK


Call for reform of coroner service

Funerals can be delayed by post mortems

The coroner service should be reformed to make it more efficient and more sensitive to the rights of next of kin, a leading academic has said.

Derrick Pounder, professor of forensic medicine from Dundee University, says a national coroner service should be established for England and Wales under the auspices of the Home Office.

The role of the coroner service is to investigate deaths were there is a suspicion of a crime, or where there is a possible risk to public health.

Professor Pounder says that the number of post mortems ordered by the 148 coroner's districts currently in operation varies greatly.

This implies, he says, that some districts are too quick to order post mortems, and that they are failing to strike an appropriate balance between the needs of the state and the rights of the next of kin.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Professor Pounder says: "Every coroner's investigation is an enforceable intrusion by the state into what would otherwise be a private family matter - the death of a loved one.

"Striking the correct balance between the reasonable needs of the state to investigate and the rights of the next of kin to privacy and religious ritual is not easy, and present evidence suggests that it is not done well in England and Wales."

Professor Pounder believes that the establishment of a single, national service would promote uniform standards based on a more considered balance between public interest and private rights.

He warns that without reform the current system could fall foul of the Human Rights Act, which will come into effect in England and Wales sometime after 2000.

Coroner workload increasing

The both the number and proportion of deaths reported to the coroner is increasing.

According to Home Office figures, 190,000 deaths (one third of the total) were reported to a coroner in England and Wales in 1996, compared with 130,000 (one fifth of the total) in 1970.

Professor Pounder argues that reporting so many deaths to the medicolegal investigative system is both intrusive for the families concerned and costly.

He proposes that mandatory inquests should be abolished, except for deaths in custody or an accident at work, and that the coroner service should focus more narrowly on deaths of legitimate medico-legal interest.

He also argues that a national database of investigated deaths should be established to improve access the information generated by coroners' inquiries.

The budget for the coroner service is 46.8m, with mortuary services costing 11.6m and pathologists fees accounting for 11.9m. Significant savings could be made if the post mortem rate was reduced, says Professor Pounder.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "There are no plans for any fundamental alteration of the system, but the effectiveness and efficiency of the service are kept under review."

She said that a Coroner Service Consultative Committee had been set up to improve links between district offices, and that the Home Office was reviewing the current training system for coroners.

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