22 November 2010

INQUEST, the leading independent organisation working to reform the investigation of contentious deaths, today called on the coalition government to reconsider their plans to abolish the of Chief Coroner for England and Wales. As the House of Lords considers the proposal as part of the Public Bodies Bill 2010, the organisation strongly criticised the government’s rationale for the cut.

Deborah Coles, Co-Director of INQUEST, said:

The decision to abolish the Chief Coroner’s post is being rushed through Parliament under the guise of the Public Bodies Bill. The government’s rationale for abolishing this post on grounds of accountability and cost are not justified. Each year tens of thousands of bereaved people are forced to grapple with an archaic, unaccountable system which is widely acknowledged to be in urgent need of fundamental reform. Society needs an inquest system fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The inquest is usually the only public forum in which contentious deaths such as accidents, deaths at work, deaths in custody or deaths of military personnel are subjected to public scrutiny. The current system is failing to perform its preventative function and the government’s plans will only frustrate the opportunity to create a system which saves lives.

David Cameron is keen to promote the ‘Big Society’ but his government have failed to listen to and properly engage with the concerns of the voluntary sector on this issue. INQUEST are not lone critics of the plans to abolish the Chief Coroner’s office. The Royal British Legion has condemned the decision as a “betrayal of bereaved service families” and the leading patient safety organisation AvMA has said that the proposals amount to a “fundamental denial of access to justice.” The government must urgently reconsider their flawed plans.

INQUEST has prepared a detailed briefing for the Committee Stage of the Bill in the House of Lords and is supporting the amendment tabled by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff to remove the Chief Coroner’s post and associated officers from the schedule of bodies to be abolished.

Notes to editors:

  1. INQUEST’s Briefing for the Committee Stage of the Public Bodies Bill in the House of Lords examines the process to abolish the Chief Coroner’s office and scrutinises the government’s twin criteria of “costs” and “accountability” that apparently underpin their plans.
  2. The creation of the post of Chief Coroner for England and Wales was at the heart of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.  The role was designed to introduce national leadership of the coroner service and would be a crucial step toward tackling the unacceptable delays, inconsistent standards of service delivery and lack of accountability that plague the current system.
  3. Examples of the numerous reviews, parliamentary reports and inquiries have called for an overhaul of the system include:
  • the Independent Review of Coroner Services commissioned by the Home Office and chaired by Tom Luce Death Certification and Investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 2003;
  • the Joint Committee on Human Rights Deaths in Custody: Third Report of Session 2004-05;
  • the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Reform of the coroners’ system and death certification: Eighth Report of Session 2005-06;
  • Final report of the Redfern Inquiry into the analysis of human tissue taken from individuals who had worked in the nuclear industry, published 16 November 2010.
  1. Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice in May 2010 record that 31,000 inquests were opened into deaths in 2009.
  2. The Public Bodies Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 29 October 2010. Clause 1 confers a general enabling power on a Minister to, by order, abolish a body or office listed in the schedules to the Bill (which includes the Chief Coroner for England and Wales in schedule 1).  The Minister must lay the draft statutory instrument containing the order before Parliament (clause 10).  The draft of the statutory instrument containing the order must be laid before each House of Parliament and cannot be made until it has been approved through a vote in each House. If the Bill is enacted as it stands then, without additional consultation or scrutiny, the order abolishing the Chief Coroner’s post could be laid before Parliament and voted through each House after a relatively short debate and with no opportunity for amendment.
  3. INQUEST provides a specialist, comprehensive advice service on contentious deaths and their investigation to bereaved people, lawyers, other advice and support agencies, the media, parliamentarians and the wider public. INQUEST is represented on the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody and the Ministry of Justice Coroner Service Stakeholder Forum.