The unpredictability and inconsistency of coroners in their approach to inquests and the hearings that lead up to them has been a common moan for many years amongst those of us who practice in this field.  Pre inquest hearings in particular have been very much an unknown.  Some coroners make extensive use of them, actively case managing the inquest process and ensuring everyone is clear on the issues.  Others rarely hold them and, if they do, their purpose can be unclear.  Part of the role of the Chief Coroner is to improve consistency and he has taken the opportunity to give guidance about good practice at pre inquest review hearings in the recent case of Brown v HM Coroner for Norfolk [2014] EWHC 187 (Admin). 

The facts of the case are involved and do not need to be delved into for the purposes of this post.  His Honor Judge Thornton QC has neatly set out the guidance in his judgment, which is largely restricted to this issue and may be found from paragraph 38.

In summary the guidance given is this:

A pre-inquest review hearing, where held, is an important stage.

In each case, the coroner should ensure that all interested persons, particularly bereaved families, have sufficient notice of the matters to be discussed. Coroners should provide a written agenda in advance and, if appropriate, express provisional views so that agreement or opposition may be expressed. The agenda should include, particularly in the more complex or difficult cases, the following: a list of interested persons; a proposed list of witnesses, identifying those who might be called and those whose statements might be read; the issues to be considered at the inquest; the scope of the evidence; a statement as to whether a jury will be required; a statement as to whether the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 art.2 is engaged; any issues of disclosure; the date of the final hearing and any other relevant matters.

In a complex or difficult investigation interested persons should be invited to respond to the coroner's agenda in advance of the pre-inquest review hearing in writing, stating what they agreed with and what they disagreed with.

The coroner should also ensure that interested persons, particularly those who are unrepresented, have sufficient disclosure of relevant statements and documents before the hearing so as to be able to address the agenda on an informed basis.

Coroners should avoid giving the impression at a pre-inquest review hearing (and in any documentation supplied before it) that the findings and conclusions of the inquest are in any way predetermined, even when the evidence points substantially in one direction. It might be necessary to explain in clear language to unrepresented families that there is a difference between seeking to identify the key issues and reaching a final conclusion.

Coroners should at all times take care in their dealings with interested persons not to give the impression of bias or favouritism. Coroners might need to communicate with police officers investigating on their behalf but their communications, whether oral or written, should be made in such a way that they would not cause concern to others that their interests were being treated as secondary. A coroner should therefore be careful in correspondence with an interested person, such as the police, not to appear to be too familiar with or close to the correspondent; he should also not encourage familiarity from the correspondent, even though he might have got to know the correspondent well in the course of his work as a coroner. Coroners should only write letters (and emails) in the course of their work that would stand the test of looking fair and unbiased if read out in court in litigation.

Whether the above is adopted by all those who ought remains to be seen, but it is a good start in providing some standardised guidance about what parties might expect to see and know before a pre inquest hearing and how these hearings should be dealt with in the future.  Here's hoping that the reality meets the expectation.