15 June 2011

Yesterday the Secretary of State for Justice issued a Written Ministerial Statement in the House of Commons which informed parliament of the government’s intention to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner. The government will propose that the office is included in Schedule 5 (Power to Modify or Transfer Functions) of the Public Bodies Bill later in this parliamentary session. The statement also included proposals to re-organise the current structure of the inquest system without substantial reform.

Helen Shaw, Co-Director of INQUEST said:

The Secretary of State has ignored the collective experience of parliamentarians, bereaved families and the voluntary sector who have consistently called for leadership and fundamental reform to make the system more effective, responsive and transparent. Instead the government proposes to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner and add yet another layer to the current, fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent.

Through the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, parliament created a single, senior judicial post with the statutory powers to spearhead legal and cultural reform to the system.

If the Secretary of State for Justice convinces parliamentarians to adopt their scheme the result will be that no single person is in a position of judicial authority with an overview of the system as a whole, empowered to identify and deal effectively with the recurrent issues that emerge.

INQUEST also believes the government’s proposals raise significant constitutional concerns. If parliament accepts the proposed amendment for the Public Bodies Bill then a Minister would be empowered to dismantle the judicial office of the Chief Coroner by ministerial order alone and this would be a serious blow to judicial independence. Following concerns expressed in the House of Lords during debate on the Public Bodies Bill the government agreed to remove 18 offices from the legislation because they performed some kind of judicial function and the Cabinet Office Minister wanted to protect their independence. INQUEST questions the government’s logic in removing some bodies performing judicial functions from the Bill yet persisting with their plans to dismantle the judicial office of Chief Coroner.

Helen Shaw added:

Scrapping the Chief Coroner’s Office is a false economy. The existing system results in huge financial costs to the public purse and human costs to bereaved families through delayed or postponed hearings, judicial reviews of coroner’s decisions and repeated investigations and inquests into similar deaths. The inadequate costings relied on by the government do not take these fully into account and do not demonstrate that their proposal will result in significant savings or improvements.

INQUEST, in conjunction with the Royal British Legion and other bereavement organisations, will continue to press for the Chief Coroner and associated offices to be removed from the Public Bodies Bill completely.

Notes to editors:

  1. The Written Ministerial Statement can be read in Hansard for 14 June 2011, just below column 64WS.
  2. Bereaved families and specialist organisations such as INQUEST contributed time and effort to the lengthy consultation processes that led up to the enactment of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 including submitting written consultations, meeting with policy-makers and Ministers, organising and speaking at parliamentary meetings/committees.
  3. The Coroners and Justice Act laid out a blueprint for fundamental reform of the coronial system and received cross-party support during its passage through Parliament. Central to the new framework was the post of Chief Coroner: a judicial office-holder who would lead reform, introduce national standards and oversee a new appeals system. In October 2010, the Government announced they would not implement key provisions of the Act and attempted to abolish the office of Chief Coroner through the Public Bodies Bill. Clause 1 of the Bill 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). In December 2010, the House of Lords passed an amendment, by 277 votes to 165, to remove the Chief Coroner and associated offices from the Bill.
  4. INQUEST’s Briefing and Frequently Asked Questions on Coronial Reform outlines the need for overhaul of the inquest system and examines the government’s arguments for abolition of the Chief Coroner’s office.