The Coroners (inquests) Rules 2013 (the Rules) came into force on 25 July 2013. Here, we provide an overview of the Rules, what they mean for those attending inquests, the potential benefits and areas of concern.

The Rules should be read in conjunction with the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (2009 Act), the content of which is outside the scope of this note.

Why were the Rules introduced?

The Rules have been introduced to implement a national framework of standards in investigations and inquests under the 2009 Act, with the aim of improving bereaved parties’ experience of investigations undertaken by coroners and making the investigations themselves more efficient. The Rules set out existing good practice, clarify aspects of inquest/pre-inquest procedure and impose new duties upon coroners.

What are the implications of the Rules?

The Rules apply to any inquest which has not been completed before 25 July 2013. The key provisions can be summarised as follows:

Efficiency

There is a strong emphasis on timings - the Coroner must open an inquest as soon as practicable (Rule 5). There is recognition of pre-inquest hearings (Rule 6) and the inquest must be completed within six months of the date on which the coroner is made aware of the death or as soon as reasonably practicable after that date. (Rule 8).

Notifications

A coroner is now obliged to notify the deceased’s next of kin/personal representative and all interested parties (who have made themselves known to the coroner) of the date, time and place of the inquest within one week of setting the hearing date and must make details of the inquest publically available (Rule 9). If there is any change to these arrangements (Rule 10), or if there is an adjournment/resumption of the inquest (Rule 24), interested persons must again be notified within seven days.

Disclosure

A new duty has been introduced to disclose to an interested person, on request, post mortem reports or any other report provided to the coroner, the recording of the inquest (when held in public) and any other document considered by the coroner to be relevant (Rule 13). The duty is subject to restrictions such as legality/unreasonableness.

The coroner is not obliged to disclose such evidence if:

  • there is a statutory or legal prohibition on disclosure
  • the consent of any author or copyright owner cannot reasonably be obtained
  • the request is unreasonable
  • the document relates to contemplated or commenced criminal proceedings, or
  • the coroner considers the document irrelevant to the investigation.

Management of evidence

The Rules recognise pre-existing practice regarding the questioning of witnesses and delivery of evidence, for example by video link (Rules 17-21). Admissibility of written evidence is also recognised and Rule 23 extends the old Rule 37 and the circumstances when evidence can be read. The new rule not only includes when the makers cannot attend, but also when it is deemed they will not attend.

Written evidence detailing who, how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death is not admissible unless the coroner is satisfied that:

  • The maker cannot given oral evidence at the inquest hearing at all or within a reasonable time
  • There is a good and sufficient reason why the writer should not attend the inquest hearing
  • There is a good and sufficient reason to believe the writer will not attend the inquest hearing, or
  • The written evidence is unlikely to be disputed.

Comment

The requirement to hold an inquest within six months is not binding and whether this is strictly followed will need to be assessed in time. The concerns expressed at consultation stage that any proposals should not create new cost burdens on the coroner/local authorities should also be borne in mind. In particular, the new duties of disclosure will need to be carefully applied to limit unnecessary and costly requests for unwarranted disclosure. We can envisage lengthy hearings relating to the disclosure and admissibility/relevance of certain documents. We would hope that such issues will be resolved through case law in due course.

Overall, however, the Rules should promote a more efficient and cost effective inquest process, particularly as a result of the greater emphasis on timescales. The rules regarding admissibility of written evidence will benefit interested parties who have done all they can to persuade reluctant witnesses to attend but refuse to do so. (The sanctions for non-attendance remain unaffected). As well as promoting greater transparency, the new duties of disclosure will assist parties preparing in advance of the inquest. Inquests are expected to run more smoothly, with fewer adjournments due to better case management, and both measures should save court time.