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Reforming the Coroners' Courts

Mohammed Fayed
BBC Radio 4's Law In Action
Tuesday 26 February 1600 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

There's growing dissatisfaction with inconsistency, delay and poor treatment of the bereaved in inquests - so does the government have the answers?

The inquest into the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed has cost around 6 million and attracted the world's attention.

However, up and down the country, thousands of inquests occur every year with varying funding and virtually no scrutiny.

Sarah Barker recently had an experience with a coroners court - and it was not a happy one. Her brother had been killed in an accident, so she and other relatives attended the inquest.

They had to sit in a waiting room alongside a man directly involved in the death of her brother.

She felt the family had little information about what was going on - and describes the experience as "very traumatic. It's made everything much more raw."

In this week's programme we examine how common these problems are - and whether the proposed Coroners Bill will solve them.

A coroner at work

Our reporter Linda Pressly spends a day with Ian Smith, the Coroner for North Staffordshire. He describes how he deals with roughly 500 inquests a year.

Linda listens in as he deals with cases of deaths caused by violence and industrial injury as well as the suspicious death of a young diabetic.

Solicitor Mick Antoniw tells the programme that not all coroners perform to the same standards as Mr. Smith.

He says there is marked inconsistency around the country. As coroners are financed by local authorities, they have wildly varying resources, ranging from as low as 20 to around 250 a case.

Mr. Antoniw says there is no clearly defined legal role for the family at the inquest, other than being an interested party.

Dame Janet Smith
Dame Janet Smith at the Shipman Enquiry
An official review in 2003 found that the system was fragmented and that treatment of the bereaved "falls below modern judicial standards of openness, fairness and predictability."

Dame Janet Smith's report that same year into the multiple murders by Harold Shipman also criticised the system and called for a new death certification process.

Changing the law

The government has promised to improve the situation through its bill, which sets up a new office of Chief Coroner to regulate the system.

Justice Minister Bridget Prentice tells the programme that the Chief Coroner will have powers to recommend greater consistency in funding and that bereaved families will receive more information.

However, the bill was not included in the current legislative programme, and still no date has been set for it.

Ian Smith
North Staffordshire Coroner
Mick Antoniw
Solicitor, Thompsons
Sarah Barker
bereaved relative
Helen Shaw
Co-director, Inquest
Bridget Prentice
Justice Minister
Helen Shaw of the campaigning and advice group Inquest adds that the Bill will not address the fact that coroners have no powers to enforce recommendations.

Meanwhile, another piece of legislation may affect some inquests much sooner.

Secrecy Clause

Clause 64 of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, currently before Parliament, gives the government the power to order inquests to be held in private.

This could happen when they involve questions of national security, affect relations between the UK and another state, or when secrecy is "otherwise in the national interest".

Helen Shaw says this goes against the current move towards openness in the system and that it could also breach the Human Rights Act's guarantee of family involvement.

Bridget Prentice defends the provision, saying they would only be used rarely. Families would, she says, be able to trust the independence of the Coroner, and an independent judicial representative would be able to review some of the evidence.

If you have experience of the coroners courts, we'd like to hear from you. Please get in touch:, Law in Action, BBC White City, Wood Lane, London W12 7TS or call us on 020 8752 5646

Law In Action will be broadcast on Tuesday 26 February 2008 at 1600 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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