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Last Updated: Monday, 12 June 2006, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Vital reforms needed for coroners
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Coroners are judicial officers but are subject to far less oversight than any judge or magistrate in England and Wales.

Coroner's Court
The Coroner's Court has been around since medieval times
This largely unregulated system - a medieval legacy which has, surprisingly, survived into the 21st century - has been creaking for a considerable time.

But it has become unsustainable as a result of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The conduct of an inquest engages two articles of the European Human Rights Convention - one guaranteeing the right to life, and the other protecting the right to privacy and family life.

On both counts, the Coroners Act 1988 and the common law are not fit for the task and reform is long overdue.

The right of the bereaved to contribute to a coroner's investigation is regarded as a vital reform.

The government published a model charter in 1999 setting out basic information on inquests, but it has not led to consistency in procedures and did not address fundamental concerns such as a refusal, in some cases, to tell relatives in advance which witnesses are to be called.

They may also be denied access to relevant documents without adequate explanation.

Irrational behaviour

The lack of any effective regulation and the absence of a right of appeal has led to practices in coroners' courts which would be unacceptable anywhere else in the judicial system.

One coroner was reported, in 2005, to have a backlog of 200 cases, many more than six months old.

There were calls for him to resign but there is no process for forcing a coroner to stand down nor any retirement age.

Another coroner was regularly criticised for autocratic, and sometimes irrational behaviour, and eventually resigned on ill health grounds.

The government hopes that the appointment of a Chief Coroner, an advisory Coronial Council and a service of full-time coroners will eradicate these anomalies.

Concerns

These reforms are largely uncontentious. But two changes - to reduce the number of people sitting on an inquest jury and to leave it to a coroner's discretion to convene a jury in cases of workplace deaths - has alarmed the campaigning group, Inquest.

Its co-director, Deborah Coles, said: "Juries perform a valuable function in alerting the public to issues such as health and safety breaches and we do not wish to see the use of juries reduced."

Lawyers also point out that the draft bill is silent on resource issues.

This means that it will remain virtually impossible for all but those on benefits to obtain legal aid to be represented at an inquest.




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