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8 Mar 2007 : Column 530WH—continued

The first set of issues is about the initial process from death to the start of the inquest, and I alluded to one or two issues when I intervened on my right hon.
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Friend. I was not aware of this until recently, but more frequently than we might like to think, there is controversy over who is the next of kin. I dealt with a case last year in which a constituent was shot dead in my constituency. He was unmarried but had had a girlfriend by whom he had one child. I think that it was their child, rather than hers by a previous relationship.

There was then effectively a tug of war between the mother and the ex-girlfriend over who had family control. Such issues need careful resolution at the outset, and, possibly, legal advice. The mother did not receive any legal advice, and she was told that she was not the next of kin, which came as a shock to her at what was already a traumatic enough time. She had heard a shot outside her window and had seen her son run in. He died in her arms in the hall of her house.

Secondly, there is an issue about control of the body, which I raised with my right hon. Friend. The presumption is that, once the next of kin has been established, they have the overriding say about the body, unless a court decides to overrule that for some good reason—argued publicly, with the next of kin represented or representing themselves. The Marchioness case was the most horrible one in that circumstance, but it is not unusual for pathologists or people working in that service to require some bodily invasion or surgery to take place as part of the autopsy or post-mortem. We must be very clear: that process should be under the family’s control. Only if one cannot track the family in the time needed to take the action necessary should something else happen.

Thirdly, there clearly needs to be a localness about the process in almost every case. I shall come on to the exceptions, but, as my right hon. Friend said, the presumption should be that, just as there should be a local court in each community, so there ought to be a local coroner’s court and service in each community. It is important that the staff know the community well—its places, geography, layout, hospitals, doctors and so on. People should be able to register the death locally and the inquest should be carried out locally.

There are two final preliminary issues. First, when the death certificate is issued, there ought to be an automatic right to challenge it within a certain time, and that right should be explained to people. During my time as an MP, I have encountered several cases in which there has been a dispute about the cause of death as described on the certificate, and that links in with my second point.

The situation arises most often when there is a death in hospital and the family think that the person—normally old—has been neglected. Although the death certificate may say, for example, “Death from bronchial pneumonia”, the family are absolutely clear that the old person fell out of bed and was neglected, injured and bruised and that the trauma, shock and lack of care led to their death.

It is very important that no one thinks that there is any collusion or a professional mutual support system. That is why my general point is that the Government should ensure that death certification systems are incorporated at the same time as the coroners’ courts
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review systems in England and Wales—they logically go together. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed about that.

I should like to make some points about structure and needs. The more I think about it, the more it is clear to me that coroners’ courts should be part of the judicial process. I have come to hold that view more and more strongly. They should be part of the judicial process, accountable through the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as it now is, or the ministry of justice, as it may become. They are as much a part of that process as local magistrates courts and the other courts.

As all colleagues who have spoken from the perspective of local authorities have confirmed, the local authority role is not something that they assume they should do, expect to do, or even normally know that they do. And it is not logical that they should do it. If we wish to retain a local authority role, the only thing that it might be a good idea to retain is the right of the local authority to nominate a person to be a coroner when there is a vacancy and possibly to confirm or veto any nomination from the local community’s point of view.

I want to make it absolutely clear that the process is judicial. The coroner should be a judicial person who is accountable through a hierarchy, as proposed by the Minister, that has a national coroner service, just as a county court judge or district judge operates in a system with a hierarchy, a discipline, peer group review and accountability. The coroner’s officer and the pathologist should be part of that system; they may be nominated by the Department of Health or whatever, but they should be part of the judicial system. That carries the implication raised by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones).

It is clear that the process needs to be better funded and that the Minister and her colleagues need to ensure, during this month and next—perhaps immediately after the Budget is dealt with—that they put the case to the current Chancellor and the Lord Chancellor, who is the head of their Department. They need to persuade both of them that we must get a properly funded DCA—or ministry of justice, if that is what it becomes—in the comprehensive spending review announcement that comes from the Treasury during the summer, or thereabouts, depending on Government changes consequent on the Prime Minister’s resignation.

The DCA must be properly funded to deal with legal aid, court pressures and the coroner service. That would be far better, and we would then be able to ensure a consistency of funding throughout the country that was not subject to the variability that is bound to occur at the moment, which is well evidenced in the report. In some places, there is a one-person operation that is run pretty much on a wing and prayer.

I do not know whether the Government’s suggestion is the answer to the full-time or part-time question. My sense is that it might be better, more cost-efficient and more appropriate to have part-time coroners in some parts of the country, such as rural areas where there is not enough work to justify a full-time coroner. It could be someone perfectly good; there are part-time judges, so it seems to me that we could have part-time coroners, too.

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Mr. Beith: A further point has been suggested to me by coroners: where will future coroners come from? If we are to attract people from, for example, the solicitors’ profession, it might be possible for them to take an appointment as a part-time coroner, gain experience of that role and then decide whether it is the career pattern they want to follow. That would create a source of recruitment for future full-time coroners.

Simon Hughes: Yes, that is a very good argument, and it supports the case. The likely outcome is one that includes full-time and part-time coroners.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would help when dealing with peaks or major incidents—the hon. Gentleman referred to the Marchioness disaster earlier—to be able to pull in other coroners to assist and speed up the process? Leaving one coroner to deal with huge accidents, such as the Marchioness disaster, is just not practical.

Simon Hughes: I shall come back to big incidents such as the Marchioness, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We always need people who can be deputies or work part-time. In a different context, the Church of England has a system whereby people who have been bishops elsewhere in the world or in England can be nominated as assistant bishops once they return to a particular diocese, and they then help out. Provided that they are willing and able, and still thought to be competent, people who have served as full-time coroners could be part-time or deputy coroners. We certainly need a back-up system; that is very important.

It is clearly nonsense in this day and age—this is a topical point, but I shall not get into the difficulties of the issue—that we have a separate system for the royal household. I think that we all agree that there should be a common system for everybody, no matter where they come from.

I am keen that we should keep a jury system where a set of issues or facts need to be resolved, or where a clear, potential conflict arises. It is difficult to say what triggers the use of a jury system—the point at which a coroner must decide whether something is a matter for a jury and not for them. I shall not pretend to give the answer, but we need a consensus about what triggers the point at which an inquest goes from being heard simply by a coroner to being heard in front of a jury.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed alluded to a similar point, which is that we must be clear about what triggers an inquest in the first place. A large number of inquests and post-mortems take place in England and Wales. I am not suggesting that there are too many or that they are inappropriate, but it is not clear to the public, or even to many professionals, how the decision is taken after a death to hold an inquest or an inquest with jurors.

I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham. We seem to need special arrangements in two or three types of case. The first such cases include that of the Marchioness. That was a huge local, regional and national tragedy, and people from all parts of the country were affected. The boats were owned by different people with companies registered in different places. The sinking actually
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happened in the middle of the River Thames, which is where the boundary between different local authorities lies. The boat ended up on the north side of the river, so it was dealt with by a coroner on the north side, but the collision probably took place in the middle.

When there is a big case, such as a rail fatality or whatever, someone should be specially appointed for the purpose: a senior, tried-and-tested person who has the ability and experience to deal with it, and who has the confidence of the public. The Marchioness experience, which the Minister followed at one remove, was a terrible, traumatic one, and it was only when Labour came to power and the Deputy Prime Minister ensured that a public inquiry was held that the beginning of the end came to that failure to deal with the inability of people ever to get a say. They felt terribly badly treated by the first coroner, and in the end, they had to spend money to go to court to get that inquest overruled and ensure that a further one was held. We should avoid such situations.

The second type relates to military deaths. It seems an anomaly that the Oxfordshire coroner has been dealing with military deaths that take place abroad, simply because the planes arrive at RAF Brize Norton, which is equipped to deal with families and the receiving of coffins—it does so well—but we need something with a broader base that does not require people to be dealt with there. If people on active service die abroad in the service of the country, we need the right system. We need expertise because coroners need to know about certain circumstances. The person in question needs to have experience, so it might be someone with experience in the services, as well as medical or legal experience.

Thirdly, we need a system that looks after people where deaths occur abroad and the processes may have taken place abroad. I had a constituent called Jeremy Larkin, who died in the terrorist explosion at Sharm el-Sheikh a year and a half ago, when he was there with his girlfriend. His parents were intelligent, bright and committed, but they had a terrible time finding out what their rights were and how to go to Egypt to sort out the procedures and so on. I have raised the issue with Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because it is partly a consular matter. However, we need to think through the system for dealing with British citizens or British residents where deaths occur abroad. We need a much clearer and more user-friendly system that supports people much better.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is proposed in clause 4 of the draft Bill is a mistake? It assumes that the autopsy systems even in European countries are of a high standard. If we make that blanket assumption, there will be more cases like the Christopher Rochester case, where medical malpractice came to light only because the coroner performed an inquest in this country.

Simon Hughes: The issues in cases that cross a national boundary are difficult. Just as with court judgments that cross national boundaries, we have to assume, to start with, that the sovereignty of the state means that we respect its system. However, we need a mechanism—it would have to be agreed, probably among Council of Europe countries, but perhaps also
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among European Union countries—for referring cases if there is real cause for concern about the lack of due process.

There is nothing worse than someone feeling that they have been dealt with thousands of miles from home in a way that was dismissive of their rights and interests. We no longer think that genocide in another country is not our business. Nowadays we cannot reasonably say that how countries investigate deaths of their citizens is none of our business. The issue is a diplomatic matter that needs to be sorted.

I want to finish by paying tribute to another organisation that I have dealt with for years and years, namely Inquest, which has done an extremely good job and has obviously taken an interest in the process. Inquest is a small organisation in terms of funding and personnel, but over the years it has desperately fought for the sort of reforms that we have been talking about.

The right hon. and learned Lady rightly suggested in her statement in January that coroners should be able to make recommendations and that they should be seen through. I support that approach. Bluntly, it is no good having a system that discovers that a terrible failure of process has led to deaths—whether people have been electrocuted at home, killed on the roads or whatever else—but that does not allow somebody who has heard the evidence to say, “This should be done”. I support the ability to require something to be done. I appreciate that the issue is difficult, but that would be a way for families to feel that there was some positive news after a tragedy that they could not prevent.

Clearly, there should be a maximum length of time between the death and the inquest. Other countries, including yours, Mr. Weir, have maximum lengths of time in the judicial system for dealing with criminal matters. There must of course be a let-out clause if something unforeseen happens. However, just as with people who are detained, the coroners’ system or the police should have to apply to somebody to get an extension. The families of the military personnel who have been waiting for the Oxfordshire coroner to deal with their case are the obvious example. The situation really is not acceptable.

Sometimes such cases arise because of incompetence—the case was cited earlier where the coroner elsewhere in the country was not up to the job. I pass no judgment on the competence of the people who have been looking after the Oxfordshire service, but I ask Ministers to say that there must be a maximum time limit and that the family must know that a delay will happen. If they agree to that, so much the better.

There must be a right to the transcript of the inquest without having to pay loads of money. At the moment people have to pay, but it is not at all guaranteed that they will receive it easily. I ask Ministers to say that that should be an absolute entitlement. I have been to the coroner’s court in my area with several families in cases where children have been killed. If people are asked questions, they will not necessarily be concentrating on what is being said; rather, they will be trying to get through the process. People must have a right to see what the transcript says at the earliest available date within in a limited number of days, so that they can take advice about it and challenge it if they want to.

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If the case requires legal representation—whether through an advocacy service, by people who are competent and knowledgeable, or by people representing themselves—we cannot exclude the legal representation service from inquests. If coroners’ courts are courts—which they are—there is a right to access to justice, and access to justice means that people must be represented.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a local complaints system is also needed? If families are not happy about the way in which they have been treated or if they have a complaint about any aspect of the coroner’s service, such a system should be in place. At the moment, people have no way to make a formal complaint—something that is now standard practice in most services that we deliver.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely agree with that point, which links well with my final point. Again, the right hon. and learned Lady has been assiduous in trying to ensure that our courts have user-friendly services, particularly for people who are the subject of domestic violence. In our borough, the service in Camberwell is a great improvement on what it used to be. Coroners’ courts need to have user-friendly services. People on different sides of the case—the person who drove the car that knocked somebody down who died and the family of the victim, for instance—should not have to sit next to one another in the waiting room of any coroner’s court. Refreshment facilities and facilities so that people can go out for a smoke break or whatever are also needed.

Our court in Southwark has been modified and is much better than it was, but in some places that has not been the case. In those places, people need the ability to complain if something does not work. To end where I began, the reason why I support a national system is that the public pay for coroners’ courts, so there must be somebody who can receive complaints about a court not delivering a service that is comfortable for the public to use and who can say, “I’m sorry, but this person”—this court officer or coroner’s officer—“is not up to the job”.

This is an important debate about an important service. We have taken a long time to get it right. I hope that lots of work will be done in the coming weeks and months, so that we can agree a way forward that will allow a Bill to be introduced in the new Session. However, I am clear that we should have a Government legal service system, not a local authority system, and that it should receive the funding. That will require Ministers to go into bat for the funding from the current Chancellor—and if he moves on, his successor—to ensure that we have the coroner service that we deserve.

3.58 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I start by declaring an interest. The very first case that I did at the Bar involved attending an inquest on behalf of a family. I attended many other inquests, although unfortunately I did not reach the dizzy heights of taking silk, unlike the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird).

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