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31 JAN 2013

R (on the application of Kent County Council) v HM Coroner for Kent (North-West District) and Others [2012] EWHC 2768 (Admin); (2012) PLLR 138

Coroner - inquest - European Convention on Human Rights - Article 2 - section 17 Children Act 1989 - ‘in need' - Middleton inquest - jury - section 8(3)(d) Coroners Act 1988

A coroner had erred in holding that an Article 2-compliant (‘Middleton') inquest should be held following the death of a 14-year old who had been assessed as being in need, where the risk of harm he was subject to did not amount to a risk of death.

15 October 2012

Administrative Court

Foskett J and HHJ Peter Thornton QC

(1)        The inquest concerned the death of a 14-year-old boy, EB, apparently due to having taken methadone. In the months before his death, disruptive behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse had led his parents to request the Claimant's social services department to find alternative accommodation for him. The Claimant (K) knew of EB's behaviour, drug-use, association with drug addicts and absence from the home. Four months prior to his death EB was assessed by K as being a ‘child in need' under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. A Serious Case Review subsequently undertaken by K found that there had been ‘many missed opportunities' and that a different approach could have led to a different outcome.

(2)        K challenged the ruling of the coroner that the inquest was to be an Article 2 or Middleton inquest, on the basis that there had been no breach of the substantive, rather than operational, obligation under Article 2; and that inadequate reasons had been given for the decision. K further challenged the decision that the inquest should take place with a jury.

(3)        Foskett J and HH Judge Thornton QC held (i) that the instant case clearly had the potential to engage the operational duty, and that the question was whether there had been a real and immediate risk to EB's life during the period before his death. Although there had been a risk, this risk could not be said objectively to be a real and immediate risk to life. As such, there was no operational duty in place. It followed that there could be no procedural duty, and as such in Middleton, so that an Article 2 inquiry was not required; R (Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] 2 AC 182 followed [44] - [49]. Furthermore, although EB had been assessed as ‘in need', this status applied to five or six thousand children at any one time. It would be disproportionate to require local authorities to exercise such control over these children so as to give rise to an operational duty, Osman v United Kingdom (2000) 29 EHRR 245 followed [51].

(4)        Without making a decision on the facts of the instant case, a coroner making such a decision should give reasons sufficient to allow the losing party to understand why they have lost [56].

(5)        That the coroner was entitled to find that there could be reason to suspect that EB's death had occurred in circumstances which, if they continued or recurred, could pose a risk to the health and safety of the public, pursuant to section 8(3)(d) of the Coroners Act 1988. The fact that the inquest should not be a Middleton-type, Article 2 did not preclude its being held with a jury [59].

Decision to hold Article 2 inquest quashed; decision to hold inquest with jury upheld.

Key paragraphs

[1] - [4] - Introduction

[5] - [9] - The circumstances of the death

[10] - [19] - The claimant's involvement with EB

[20] - [24] - The inquest proceedings

[25] - [34] - The submissions

[35] - [41] - The Article 2 issue

[42] - [52] - This case

[53] - [56] - Lack of reasons

[57] - [60] - The decision to have a jury

[61] - [65] - Conclusions    

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