The Judicial Review and the Courts Bill (the Bill) was first presented to Parliament in July 2021 and is currently at the committee stage in the House of Lords. Whilst the focus of The Bill has centred mainly on reforming the judicial review process, Chapter 4 of the Bill relates to coroners and amends the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
Coroners are independent judicial officers who investigate deaths which are unnatural or violent, have an unknown cause, take place in prison, police custody or another type of state detention. Coroners are empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of a death. Coroner’s inquests are a powerful tool in establishing how, when and where deceased individuals came to their death. They are an important mechanism for holding both institutions and individuals to account. Their findings can often be crucial in bringing about significant and meaningful changes, in order for future deaths to be avoided. By the same measure, they can also prove to be an overwhelming and traumatic experience for those who have lost a loved one.
The issue of allowing inquests to take place via video link and audio is addressed in Section 39 of the Bill. Providing the option of inquests taking place via video link has been praised in the most part. Although some families may find an in-person inquest beneficial, the ability to participate via video link provides family members who live further afield or even outside of the UK with the opportunity to participate. In contrast, the prospect of some inquests taking place via audio only has been widely criticised. Given the complexity and sensitivity of issues raised at inquests, it is perhaps understandable that concerns regarding the justification of inquests taking place via telephone only have been raised.
Whilst the reforms to coroner’s system in the Bill are relatively brief and compressed into just 5 sections, it is perhaps what has not been included in the Bill which is at present proving to be most controversial. When the Bill began its parliamentary journey in 2021, there was some hope that its reforms would significantly improve the experience of corners inquests for bereaved families. The Report of the Justice Committee to Parliament (the Committee), published in May 2021 highlighted many of the well-known issues within the coroner’s system which has been described by inquest lawyer, Dr Oliver Lewis as ‘the wild west of the law’. The Committee commented that “it is unacceptable that the service people receive from the coroner service varies depending on where they live”. Regional disparities are the product of variances in funding from local authorities. Local authorities have the power to determine what the priorities are for their area and coroners then operate to fit this mould. This issue is illustrated by the fact that the Coroners Court Support Service, a charity which provides support and guidance to bereaved families, is only available in around half of the coroner’s courts.
At present, public funding for bereaved families to receive legal representation at inquests is only available in exceptional cases. Eligibility for legal aid in these exceptional cases is then subject to means testing. The application process to obtain legal aid is extremely demanding for families at a time of their greatest need. The Law Society has supported a number of amendments to the Bill, including the universal availability of legal aid for bereaved families at inquests involving state bodies. Under the current system, many families are forced to represent themselves, or privately fund legal representation at significant cost. This amendment would have undoubtedly gone some distance in bridging the current ‘inequality of arms’ that exists between bereaved families and state bodies who have access to publicly funded legal representation. The amendment to the Bill, which aimed to make legal aid available to bereaved families at inquests in which state bodies are involved, was recently voted down by 313 votes to 186. With the Bill at the committee stage in the House of Lords, it remains to be seen whether it will result in significant reforms to the coroner’s system and provide hope and support for bereaved families.
It should be noted that if a death has occurred through no fault of the deceased person, but through the fault of another, it may be possible to pursue a claim on behalf of the deceased’s estate and if so, the cost of legal representation at an inquest may be recoverable as part of the cost of the claim.
Article written by Ellis Meade, trainee solicitor in the Neurolaw Team.