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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 19:27 GMT
Shipman prompts coroner shake-up
Harold Shipman
Shipman signed the death certificates of his victims
Grieving relatives would be able to ask for a "second opinion" on death certificates under plans to reform the coroners' system in England and Wales.

The reforms follow recommendations made by the inquiry into murders by doctor Harold Shipman, who signed the death certificate of many of his victims.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman unveiled plans for a chief coroner who would oversee their work.

She said families were too often overlooked in the inquest process.

Coroners preside over more than 200,000 inquests each year in England and Wales.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have different systems for inquiring into sudden deaths, where the cause of death is not certain or where the identity of a body is not known.

'No complaints system'

Dame Janet Smith's inquiry into the Shipman murders urged reforms of the coroners' system.

But there have also been frequent complaints that inquests are insensitive to grieving relatives.

There is inordinate delay between death and an inquest - sometimes of three to four years
Helen Shaw
Co-director of campaign group Inquest

In the Marchioness boat disaster case, the coroner was criticised when the hands of 20 victims were removed for identification.

Ms Harman admitted in a statement to MPs that the current inquests system was failing.

She said: "Families frequently get overlooked during the inquest service, there is nowhere for them to turn when they think something is going wrong, there's no complaints system, the system is fragmented with no national leadership."

In a system Ms Harman branded "downright archaic", many coroners work only part-time, spending much of their time as solicitors in private practice.

'Only job'

The reforms would see a chief coroner - an equivalent to the Lord Chief Justice's role among judges - and would see a move to a system of full-time coroners, all of whom will have to be legally qualified.

Ms Harman said the changes would give families the right to contribute to coroners' investigations.

And they would be able to voice concerns even where a death certificate had already been signed by a doctor - something ministers say cannot happen under the present rules.

'Grief put on hold'

A draft Coroners' Bill is due to published in April.

Helen Shaw, co-director of campaign group Inquest, said she was pleased there was a commitment to change after 25 years of calling for reform.

The current system meant "inordinate delay between death and an inquest - sometimes of three to four years", she said.

"Some families have described to us how their grief has been put on hold," said Ms Shaw.

"The lack of information given to bereaved about their rights makes it appallingly difficult for people to feel empowered in the service."

She also wanted to see families given funding so they could be legally represented at inquests.

Conservative shadow minister Jonathan Djanogly said the proposals were long overdue but would need to be carefully examined.

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Heath said: "The reforms are entirely welcome and I am pleased to see that the focus is on the bereaved."

Call to reform coroners' powers
30 Aug 02 |  Politics

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