The draft Coroners Bill was first published in June 2006. There is no indication when this Bill will be passed through Parliament other than “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
One change that has been made in advance of the Bill becoming legislation relates to a coroner’s powers to take action to prevent deaths. In July this year, the Government amended the power for coroners to make reports to organisations which have the power to take action to prevent deaths in the future.
The existing rules allowed coroners to make reports, to individuals or organizations, where the coroner believed that action should be taken to prevent future deaths.
The amended rule (effective from 17th July 2008) provides a greater remit for coroners to report, not limited to deaths similar to those dealt with by the inquest.
There is now a statutory duty on the recipients of reports to respond in writing within 56 days. A recipient of a coroner’s report must in their response give details of any action which is proposed (in response to the report or otherwise) or an explanation as to why no action will be taken.
Therefore, where the evidence in an inquest gives rise to a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur or will continue to exist in the future, and the coroner is of the opinion that action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuation of such circumstances or to eliminate or reduce the risk of death created by such circumstances, he may report those circumstances to the person/organisation concerned who he believes has power to take such action.
The impact of this power is as yet unknown, particularly where the HSE or similar agency is involved given the enforcement powers available to it to stop operations that give rise to risk of death or injury created by similar circumstances.
There is now also unequivocal authority for coroners to share reports and responses with “properly interested persons” such as bereaved relatives. In addition, coroners must now send copies of the reports and responses to the Lord Chancellor so that a central record can be compiled and trends and lessons in health and safety issues can be highlighted.