Inquest proceedings, like other legal proceedings in the UK, have been significantly affected by social distancing restrictions and advice arising from the COVID-19 crisis. This blog looks briefly at the impact of the Coronavirus Act 2020 on proceedings, and examines the Chief coroner’s guidance notes to Coroners working during the crisis.
Impacts of Legal Amendments and Updated Guidance
The Coronavirus Act 2020 has a relatively short section dealing with inquests in England and Wales. It clarifies that COVID-19 is not to be considered a “notifiable disease” for the purposes of section 7(2)(c) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. This means that most COVID-19 related deaths will not require coroners to hold a jury inquest. Further clarification about the extent to which coroners should be investigating deaths arising from COVID-19 has been provided in a guidance note produced by the Chief Coroner, which states that the “vast majority of deaths from COVID-19… will not be referred to the coroner”. There is further guidance about the scope of coronial investigations into COVID-19 deaths in the rare cases when an inquest is required.
The Government guidance on social distancing will be having a much wider ranging and immediate impact on inquests. The Chief Coroner has adopted the Lord Chief Justice’s position that no physical hearing should take place unless it is urgent and essential business, and that it is safe for those involved for the hearing to take place. Individual coroners will have discretion to decide which hearings might fall into that category. The Chief Coroner has asked for hearings to take place remotely wherever possible, and only if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure social distancing.
As matters stand, the Chief Coroner’s view is that the coroner in any hearing (remote or otherwise) will have to be present in court, even if the other parties are not. This view is based on Rule 11 in the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, which requires inquest and pre-inquest hearings to Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 to be held in public. Unless a coroner is present at Court, the Chief Coroner’s view is that this section cannot be complied with. The position may evolve over time. Rule 11(5) allows for the public to be excluded from pre-inquest hearings in the interests of justice. The Coronavirus Act 2020 contemplates the Court of Appeal, the High Court, Crown Courts, Magistrates’ Courts, County Courts, Family Courts, and chambers of the First-tier and Upper Tribunals being able to conduct hearings by video and audio link in public by broadcasting them. It also contemplates coroners’ inquests in Northern Ireland being carried out in the same manner. It would be strange if the inquests in England and Wales were left as outliers.
The Chief Coroner’s guidance envisages resourcing issues both within and without the coronial system impacting on inquest proceedings. A coroner’s duties extend beyond conducting inquest proceedings and their workload will be increased by any period of increased mortality. This increase in workload is very likely to be coupled with a downturn in staff numbers as coroners, coroner’s officers and support staff find themselves unable to work because of illness, social distancing or self-isolation guidance. The Chief Coroner has sought to reduce the impact of this by:
- Encouraging Senior Coroners to plan with their local authority and police area, and consider requesting the deployment of additional resource to their local coroner’s office.
- Encouraging coroners to share staff, facilities and accommodation with neighbouring Coroner Areas.
- Encouraging Senior Coroners to liaise with the Courts and Tribunals’ Service about shared proceedings.
- Temporarily consenting to the appointment of assistant coroners by local authorities without open competition.
- Urgently pursuing a number of avenues to try to widen the pool of assistant coroners who may be available.
Even with these measures, disruption and delay of inquest proceedings is inevitable. The Chief Coroner suggests that coroners should consider adjourning inquests, especially those which are likely to occupy significant time and judicial / staff effort.
The nature of inquests means that they are more reliant than other proceedings on medical expertise, and more likely to involve an investigation of conduct in a medical setting. The very substantial strain that COVID-19 is placing on the healthcare system is going to significantly reduce the availability of such expertise to coroners, and is likely to prevent medical organisations and their staff from participating in inquests. The Chief Coroner has acknowledged the demands on pathologists, and has also suggested that coroners grant or invite extensions to any healthcare organisations required to provide evidence. He has asked coroners to recognise the “primary clinical commitments” of medical professionals.
Variation between Coroner Areas
Each Coroner Area in England is resourced by the relevant local authority. Their courts are not run by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal’s service like other courts in the jurisdiction. This means that the impact of COVID-19 will vary between the Coroner Areas. Factors that are likely to affect a Coroner Area’s response will include:
- The financial resources the local authority commits to the Coroner’s Office;
- The availability of technology to facilitate remote working and hearings;
- The opinion of the Senior Coroner on the interpretation of the Chief Coroner’s Guidance and the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013;
- The extent of the impact of COVID-19 on the local healthcare system.
The COVID-19 crisis has affected all sectors of the justice system. The coronial system is particularly vulnerable to disruption because of the increased burden placed on coroners and their staff by the pandemic, the inevitable reduction in resources available to coroners, and the role in the inquest process of medical expertise and evidence. The Chief Coroner’s view on the required format for remote hearings is likely to restrict the number that go ahead. Any extant or new inquests are likely to face significant delays especially those which are resource heavy, require input from those in the healthcare sector, or are assigned to Coroner Areas that have been seen high rates of COVID-19 infection.