Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Secret inquest proposal 'on hold'

Coroners' papers
The bill will create the new post of Chief Coroner

Proposals to hold some inquests in private on grounds of national security appear to be on hold after criticism from MPs and justice campaigners.

Unveiling plans for legislation to reform the coroners service, ministers said they "would reflect" on plans for secret inquests dropped last month.

A new bill will increase protection for witnesses in violent criminal cases such as gang-related killings.

It will also "modernise" the law on assisted suicide.

Reform of the coroners service was included in the government's controversial counter-terrorism bill debated in the last Parliament but was ultimately removed.

Controversial plans

This was largely driven by opposition to plans to hold inquests in private on national security grounds.

Ministers wanted powers to remove juries, relatives and the public from certain hearings to ensure sensitive information, such as details of phone taps, were not published.

Although ministers said the majority of inquests would still take place in public, critics said it would have set a dangerous precedent and not just applied to terrorist cases.

We hope that parliament will ensure that all measures included in this bill provide for families full participation in what it often the mechanism for public scrutiny of contentious deaths
Inquest

At the time, the government said aspects of its reform proposals had not been entirely dropped and would appear in a future coroners bill.

On Wednesday, it said it was "reflecting carefully on the points raised during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill and will set out our position shortly".

It added: "It is our intention to legislate to ensure inquests have all the information central to an investigation into a death, including information which cannot be disclosed publicly without harming the public interest, for example, for reasons of national security".

The Coroners and Justice Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech, promises new "investigative witness anonymity" in gang-related killings.

The bill applies to England and Wales, with some elements applying to the UK.

'Failing system'

Other proposals contained in the bill include the introduction of a new death certification system to certify that an independent review of the cause of death has been carried out.

The bill would create the new post of Chief Coroner who will establish national standards for the coroners service and monitor compliance.

Campaigners said reform of the inquest system was overdue, with many bereaved families getting unsatisfactory answers about contentious cases such as deaths at work and the death of military personnel.

"It is a system beset with delay, inconsistency and is currently not fit for purpose," said a a spokesman for Inquest, which advises people on their rights in coroners courts.

"We hope that parliament will ensure that all measures included in this bill comply with Human Rights legislation and provide for families full participation in what it often the mechanism for public scrutiny of contentious deaths."



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