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By Abigail Stamp, Barrister, Guildhall Chambers
Relevant parts of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 along with The Coroners (Investigation) Regulations 2013 and The Coroners (Inquest) Rules 2013 came into force on 25 July 2013 and apply to any investigation or inquest which has not been completed by that date, albeit decisions made before this date still stand. To some extent it is a case of the old rules being re-housed within the new rules. There are, however, some modifications which it is hoped will mean that inquests are heard earlier, that families receive information earlier and that there is access to documents and evidence. Perhaps the most significant change is the requirement for coroners to provide disclosure. The following aspects of the rules may be of particular note to PI lawyers representing interested parties at inquests:
1) Coroners - HM coroners are to be called senior coroners. Deputy coroners will become either area coroners or assistant coroners. All new coroners must be legally qualified.
2) Investigations - An inquest is part of an investigation. The coroner will decide whether he has a duty to investigate the death. If initial investigations (usually a post mortem) reveal that the death was due to natural causes there will be no need to proceed to an inquest hearing. It is anticipated that fewer inquests will be needed as a result of early investigation.
3) Time scales - The aim is to complete the investigation within 6 months. Where the investigation has not been completed or discontinued within a year the coroner must notify the Chief Coroner of that fact as soon as reasonably practicable and explain why.
4) Pre Inquest Reviews - The common practice of PIR's has been formalised by rule 6. The public may be excluded from a PIR if it is in the interests of justice or national security. The public may only be excluded from an inquest if it is in the interests of national security. The difference was prompted by a consultation response to the effect that complex legal argument debated at the PIR but later ruled out of the scope of the inquest should not always be aired in public.
5) Disclosure - There is a strengthened disclosure obligation. Where an interested person asks for disclosure of a document held by the coroner, the coroner must provide a copy of that document or make the document available for inspection. Disclosure may be refused where there is a statutory or legal prohibition on disclosure, the consent of the author or copyright owner cannot reasonably be obtained, the request is unreasonable, the document relates to contemplated or commenced criminal proceedings, or where the coroner considers the document to be irrelevant. The coroner must not charge a fee for disclosure provided before or during an inquest.
6) Documentary evidence - What used to be "rule 37 statements" are now dealt with by rule 23. Written evidence can be admitted if it is not possible for the person to attend within a reasonable time, if there is good and sufficient reason why the person should not attend, if there is good and sufficient reason to believe the maker will not attend, or if the evidence is unlikely to be disputed.
7) Juries - Coroners need not sit with a jury in article 2 cases (e.g. a death in prison) where the death is due to natural causes.
8) Conclusions - A verdict is now called a conclusion. The new list of short form conclusions includes road traffic collision and alcohol or drug related death.
9) Reports to prevent other deaths - Rule 43 reports have been renamed and extended. They cannot be made until the coroner has considered all of the documentary evidence and information relevant to the investigation. If the coroner thinks that action should be taken a report must be made. The report must be sent to the Chief Coroner and every interested person who in the coroner's opinion should see it. Where the deceased is under the age of 18 it must be sent to the Local Safeguarding Children Board. The coroner may also send a report to any other person who the coroner believes may find it useful or of interest. The Chief Coroner may then publish the report or a summary of it and send a copy of the report to anyone the Chief Coroner believes may find it useful or of interest. The response to the action to prevent other deaths report must be provided within 56 days of the report being sent (subject to the coroner granting an extension) and must contain details of any action that has been taken or it is proposed will be taken and set out a timetable of the action proposed, or explain why no action is proposed. A person giving the response may make representations about the release of the response or the publication of the response to the coroner who will then pass those representations to the Chief Coroner.