With effect from 25 July 2013 various provisions in Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into force, with the corresponding provisions in the Coroners Act 1988 being repealed. Various statutory instruments also came into effect, including the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013, the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, the Coroners (Allowances, Fees and Expenses) Regulations 2013 and the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (Alteration of Coroner Areas) Order 2013. New terminology has been introduced: there is a new distinction between investigations and inquests, with the inquest forming the final part of the investigation process; coroner districts are now coroner areas; and the terminology of determinations and conclusions replaces that of verdicts.

The Act: a brief overview

Section 1 of the 2009 Act:

  • imposes a duty on a senior coroner to conduct an investigation into a person’s death as soon as practicable if the coroner has reason to suspect that the deceased died a violent or unnatural death, or the cause of death is unknown, or the deceased died whilst in custody or otherwise in state detention;
  • provides for an investigation to be undertaken, pursuant to the direction of the Chief Coroner, where the coroner believes that a death has occurred and considers that the circumstances of death are such that there should be an investigation but there is no body;
  • empowers the coroner to make whatever enquiries seem necessary in order to decide if the duty to investigate arises.

Section 4 of the Act sets out the circumstances in which an investigation must or may be discontinued:

  • the senior coroner must discontinue the investigation if the post-mortem examination reveals the cause of death before the coroner has begun holding an inquest and the coroner thinks that it is not necessary to continue the investigation (section 4(1));
  • this does not apply where the coroner has reason to suspect that the deceased died a violent or unnatural death or died while in custody or otherwise in state detention (section 4(2));
  • where a senior coroner discontinues an investigation under section 4, no inquest may be held and no determination or finding under section 10 may be made (but this does not prevent a fresh investigation from being conducted): section 4(3);
  • a written explanation of the decision to discontinue must be provided upon request to an interested person: section 4(4).

The Act imposes, for the first time, time limits upon coroners. Thus it is the duty of a coroner under section 16 of the Act to notify the Chief Coroner of any investigation that has not been completed or discontinued within a year (running from the date on which the coroner has been made aware that the person’s body is within his area) and to notify him of the date on which the investigation is completed or discontinued. The Chief Coroner is in turn required to maintain a register of such notifications (section 16(2)). The duty is supplemented by provisions in the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations. Thus, where an investigation has not been completed or discontinued within the year, regulation 26(1) requires that the coroner must notify the Chief Coroner of that fact as soon as reasonably practicable and must explain why. Regulation 26(2) applies where such an investigation is subsequently discontinued or completed and requires the coroner to notify the Chief Coroner of the date of completion/discontinuance and to provide a reason for any further delay. An inquest must completed within 6 months of the date on which the Coroner is made aware of the death or as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter: rule 8 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules.

The purpose of the investigation is defined in section 5 of the Act in essentially the same terms as previously but Article 2 compliance is ensured by section 5(2) which provides that where necessary to avoid a breach of Convention rights “purpose” is to be read as including the purpose of ascertaining in what circumstances the deceased came by his or her death. Section 11 and schedule 1 to the Act make provision for the suspension and resumption of investigations, particularly in the event of criminal charges.

Section 6 of the Act provides that a coroner who conducts an investigation into a person’s death must as part of the investigation hold an inquest into the death (unless the investigation has been discontinued). The general rule is that the inquest is without a jury (section 7(1)). Section 7(2) sets out the circumstances where there must be a jury: namely where there is reason to suspect: that the deceased died in state custody or otherwise in state detention and that the death was a violent or unnatural one or the cause of death is unknown; that the death resulted from an act or omission of a police officer or member of a service police force in the purported execution of their duty; or that the death was caused by a notifiable accident, poisoning or disease. Section 7(3) confers a discretion on a coroner to hold an inquest with a jury if the coroner thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so.

Schedule 5 to the Act confers powers on the coroner to require a person to attend to give evidence or to produce documents or any thing in their custody or control which relates to a relevant matter. Schedule 6 creates various offences relating to witnesses and evidence, including doing anything intended to have the effect of preventing any evidence, document or other thing from being given, produced or provided for the investigation.

The outcome of an inquest now takes the form of a determination of the statutory questions (section 10).

The Investigations Regulations

These impose various duties upon coroners, including a duty to be available at all times for urgent matters; a duty to attempt to identify the next of kin or personal representative and inform that person of the decision to begin an investigation; a duty to release the body for burial or cremation as soon as reasonably practicable; duties in the event of the transfer of an investigation to another coroner; and duties to provide information to the Chief Coroner and to the Local Safeguarding Children Board.

The Inquests Rules

The new rules apply to any inquest not completed before 25 July 2013. The inquest must be opened as soon as reasonably practicable and at the opening the coroner must where possible set the dates for any subsequent hearings. Whilst both inquest hearings and pre-inquest reviews should be in public, rule 11 allows the coroner to direct the exclusion of the public from the inquest hearing on national security grounds, or from a pre-inquest review hearing on national security grounds or in the interests of justice. Rule 13 imposes a duty on the coroner to provide disclosure to interested persons, save in the circumstances set out in rule The Rules make provision for evidence to be given by live video-link or behind a screen. The admission of written evidence is governed by rule 23. The provisions for the summoning and attendance of jurors have been simplified and are now contained in rules 29-31.

Reports to prevent future deaths

Rule 43 of the old Rules has been replaced by a new regime for making reports to prevent other deaths (referred to by the Chief Coroner as PFD – prevention of further deaths – reports). Paragraph 7(1) of Schedule 5 to the Act imposes a duty to report a matter to a person who the coroner believes may have the power to take action, where anything revealed by the investigation gives rise to a concern that circumstances creating a risk of other deaths will occur or continue to exist in the future and in the coroner’s opinion action should be taken to prevent the occurrence or continuance of such occurrences or to reduce or eliminate the risk of death. The report may not be made until the coroner has considered all the documents, evidence and information that s/he considers relevant to the investigation. The report must be sent to the Chief Coroner, who can publish a copy or summary of it in such manner as he thinks fit. Paragraph 7(2) of Schedule 5 imposes a duty on the recipient of the report to respond within 56 days, giving details of any action that has been taken or which it is proposed will be taken and a timetable of the action taken or proposed. If no action is proposed, an explanation must be provided.

The Chief Coroner has prepared a useful Guide to the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which can be found on the www.judiciary.gov.uk website.