Inquests

Originally published in September 2003

Proposals to change the Coroners system†The Luce Report, commissioned by the†Home Office, was published this summer. It†makes 122 recommendations for reforming†and bringing up to date the procedures for†certifying and investigating death and the†office of H M Coroner. However, no system†for investigating death could ever be free†from controversy and these proposals will†not satisfy everyone as the following points†show.

Coroners will be employed by a national†body instead of being appointed by the local†authority. This may lead to a loss of links†between the coroner and the local community.

Juries will be empanelled only in cases†involving the death of someone compulsorily†in the care of the state, or where the death†may have been caused by agents of the state†and Article 2 of the European Convention on†Human Rights (the right to life)may have†been breached. This would exclude juries†from most clinical negligence cases and†deaths in the workplace where they have a†valuable role.

There is no proposal to extend public funding†to cover legal representation of family†members or other interested parties at all†inquests, although there will be more liberal†interpretation of the criteria for public†funding where a public authority is†represented. There will continue not to be†'equality of arms 'for all participants in the†inquest process.

Evidence and procedure

There will be subtle changes in the distinctions†between inquests and other forms of legal†proceedings. For example, there will no longer†be a right to refuse to answer questions which†might lead to self-incrimination. Instead,a†witness will be required to answer all questions†in return for an undertaking that the testimony†will not be used against the witness in any†criminal trial. This will increase the†effectiveness of the inquest as an inquiry into the†facts.

The rule against making submissions on matters†of factual evidence is likely to be changed. There†are also likely to be rules providing for†disclosure of documents. In these ways, the†inquest will become more like the civil litigation†process.

Verdicts

The existing form of verdict will not be used in†future. There will continue to be a form of†classification of each death investigated at an†inquest but this will not be in terms implying†criminal or civil liability, or its absence. The†inquest outcome is to be primarily a factual†account of the cause and circumstances of the†death.

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