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Q&A: Coroners' courts changes
Home Office report into coroners' courts
The Government wants to shake up the aged system of coroners' courts
The government has announced its proposed shake-up of the ancient system of coroners' courts.

But how will that affect the way coroners deal with inquests?

How does the system work?

Coroners are independent judicial officers. They are usually lawyers and sometimes doctors.

It is their duty to find out the medical cause of death, if it is not known, and to also enquire about the cause if it appears to be unnatural or as a result of violence.

Most deaths are never reported to the coroner, being dealt with instead by the dead person's own doctor, or a hospital doctor.

Sudden deaths are normally reported by the police or by a doctor. Doctors also report unexpected deaths.

What are the problems?

A number of problems with the system were identified by the government earlier this year, when it was labelled "a 19th Century system for a 21st Century population".

The Fundamental Review of Death Certification and Investigation and the third report of the Shipman inquiry in 2003 found the service was "fragmented, non-accountable, variable in quality and consistency, ineffective in part, and very much dependent on the abilities of those working within it at present".

Many coroners were found to be working part-time and with archaic pieces of legislation.

The review also found limited information on evidence available in some areas and limited involvement for the bereaved.

A spokesman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: "Full-time coroners will be able focus more on their role and provide a better service, particularly for the bereaved.

"These reforms will also provide a better level of evidence gathering. Coroners have limited powers in that area at the moment and we want to broaden those out."

What did the Shipman inquiry recommend?

A report into the GP's murders urged radical reform of the system to enable cases of murder, medical error and neglect to be better detected.

The current 100-year-old arrangements for death registration, cremation certification and coroner investigation were found to be inadequate and did not prove sufficient to deter Shipman from killing his patients.

However, when the government outlined its plans last February, Dame Janet Smith, who led the official inquiry into the killings, warned that even the new guidelines could not prevent another case like Shipman's from occurring.

How will the system change?

If adopted, the proposals in the draft Coroners Reform Bill would establish full-time, fully-trained coroners for the first time, while giving the families of the deceased proper legal status in the inquest system.

The changes would also establish a proper system for the appointing and training of coroners and create a new post of chief coroner for England and Wales, directly answerable to ministers.

This post would be designed to give leadership and to develop national standards for coroners.

The right to ask the coroner for a second opinion on a death certificate would be open to relatives of the dead, who could also challenge a coroner's decision through an appeal to the chief coroner.

Also, coroners will be able to ban the media from naming a dead person or publishing information which could lead to their identification.

These proposals are designed to apply mainly to dead children, suicides and in such high-profile cases as the Soham murders.

Shipman prompts coroner shake-up
06 Feb 06 |  UK Politics

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