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The court considered the competing interests of a Coroner to carry out a full, fair and fearless investigation into the cause of a 16-year old girl's death vs the duty of a local authority and its Local Safeguarding Children Board to protect the confidential nature of documentation within its control.
20 June 2013
Jeremy Baker J.
High Court, Queen's Bench Division
Following a 16-year-old child (D) in foster care taking her own life, the LSCB undertook a Serious Case Review (SCR) and obtained a number of Individual Management Reviews (IMRs) and Information Reports (IRs) from the various agencies contributing to D's care. The coroner adjourned an inquest into D's death and sought disclosure of the draft SCR report, IMRs and IRs to:
(1) Enable him to consider the scope of his inquiry in its proper context, including the necessity or otherwise of an Article 2 inquiry and/or a Rule 43 report;
(2) Provide him with appropriate guidance as to identity of potential witnesses and documents, the pursuance of relevant lines of inquiry and the framing of questions for those witnesses in the course of the inquest.
The board provided a copy of the draft SCR report but refused to provide copies of the IMRs and IRs. The coroner obtained witness summonses requiring the provision of the documents under CPR r 34.3(2)(c) and r 34.4(1). The claimant local authority and board applied to set aside witness summonses requiring the production of documents to the defendant coroner on the basis that their contents are protected by public interest immunity (PII) and/or their disclosure was unnecessary pursuant to r 34.4(2) CPR 1998.
The Court considered the competing interest of the parties, the relevant guidance provided to LSCB's by the Secretary of State ("Working Together to Safeguard Children (2010)" and "A guide for The Police, The Crown Prosecution Service, Local Safeguarding Children Boards to assist with liaison and the Exchange of information when there are simultaneous Chapter 8 Serious Case Reviews and Criminal Proceedings (April 2011)") and to Coroners by the Ministry of Justice ("Guidance for coroners and Local Safeguarding Children Boards on the supply of information concerning the death of children"), plus relevant statutory obligations and case law.
The court acknowledged that LSCBs played a crucial role in the safeguarding of children, particularly "looked-after" children, and one of the most important mechanisms by which they were enabled to fulfil their role was by carrying out SCRs. The court was influenced by the LSCB's concession that undisclosed INRs and IRs contained material that was potentially relevant to the coroner's inquiry, but acknowledging that there are merits in the potential claim for PII to be sustained in relation to the IMRs and IRs. The court declined the application to set aside the witness summons on the ground that the disclosure was to HM Coroner, rather than the public, and the public interest in the pursuit of a full and appropriately detailed inquest into the death of D firmly outweighed the claim for non-disclosure.
The aforementioned is consistent with the judgment of Eady J in Inner West London Assistant Deputy Coroner v Channel Four Television Corporation  1WLR 945.
It is important to note that disclosure was permitted only to the coroner and not to interested parties at any inquest, which is likely to pose new PII claims, for which there is currently no guidance.
Barrister, Doughty Street Chambers