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Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Coroners and Justice

Coroners and Justice Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Frank Cook, † Mr. Roger Gale
Bellingham, Mr. Henry (North-West Norfolk) (Con)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
Eagle, Maria (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Garnier, Mr. Edward (Harborough) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Robertson, Angus (Moray) (SNP)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Alan Sandall, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee


André Rebello, Honorary Secretary, Coroners Society of England and Wales
Deborah Coles, Co-director, Inquest
Helen Shaw, Co-director, Inquest
Professor Peter Furness, President, Royal College of Pathologists
Alison Cox, Chief Executive, Cardiac Risk in the Young
Anita Coles, Policy Officer, Liberty
Isabella Sankey, Director of Policy, Liberty
Barbara Esam, Public Policy Lawyer, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
Martin Narey, Chief Executive, Barnardo’s
Peter Robbins, Chief Executive, Internet Watch Foundation

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 3 February 2009


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Coroners and Justice Bill
Written evidence to be reported to the House

CJ01 Professor Jeremy Horder
CJ02 Information Commissioner
CJ03 Local Government Association
CJ04 Liberty
CJ05 Liberty (additional evidence)
CJ06 Law Society
CJ07 Coroners Society of England and Wales
4 pm
The Committee deliberated in private.
4.7 pm
On resuming—
The Chairman: On behalf of the Committee, I welcome the witnesses for this afternoon’s first evidence session. They are André Rebello, honorary secretary of the Coroners Society of England and Wales; Deborah Coles and Helen Shaw, co-directors of Inquest; Alison Cox, chief executive of Cardiac Risk in the Young; and Professor Peter Furness, president of the Royal College of Pathologists. Thank you all for joining us.
Q 83Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I have four quick questions regarding appointments and directed mainly at André Rebello and the Coroners’ Society. First, does the Coroners’ Society feel that the posts of senior, area and assistant coroner should remain freehold? Secondly, does it concern you that the Bill makes provision for the area and assistant coroners to be appointed by the local authority, rather than by the senior coroner? For example, if a local authority had an agenda because it did not have much confidence in the senior coroner, could not there be potential problems of conflict if it decided that it wanted to put its stamp on the appointment of the area and assistant coroners?
Thirdly, do you feel that it is right that medically qualified professionals will be precluded from applying for those posts? Fourthly, does it concern you that senior coroners, who effectively are very experienced members of the judiciary, will be precluded from applying for the post of deputy chief coroner, as those are all based on appointment? Those questions run together.
The Chairman: Mr. Rebello, I ask you to respond to those questions first, then the other witnesses may indicate if they wish to come in afterwards.
André Rebello: With regard to freehold coroners, clearly the title “freehold” will give added independence, make it clear that coroners are not employed and, I am sure, give the public more confidence with the coronial office. Local authorities perhaps have too much control of the budget they provide to coroners and things of that nature, which will affect the coronial service. Having the office as a freehold office—whatever that means—might give the public greater confidence.
It is right for coroners to be appointed by the local authority, or the local authority in conjunction with someone from the chief coroner’s office, or even—for the senior coroner—the Judicial Appointments Commission. Thereafter, it is very difficult for someone to be parachuted in to work with the senior coroner. They have to work as a team: when the senior coroner is not there, the assistant coroners must be available. In any event, area coroners would be full-time judicial office holders—very similar to the senior coroner.
Given that there are no national terms and conditions for coroners, the danger is that someone who happens to be on the books of the local authority legal department might be told, “You are the new assistant coroner, go along and help the coroner.” That would be outrageous. It is essential for the coroner to be involved in the appointment of assistant coroners.
I would be very uncomfortable about someone being appointed to work with me, to the standards that I set within my jurisdiction, if I had no control regarding whether that person had the specifications and particular abilities to carry out coronial office to the standards I want. We cannot have an assistant coroner coming in and working to different standards. It may be that the chief coroner sets the tone for the whole country, but I do not know whether that will happen overnight. I would definitely expect certain standards in my jurisdiction of Liverpool, and I would be very uncomfortable with any assistant coroner coming in. I would want to have some control.
Medically qualified coroners have provided an excellent service over the years, and many—if not all—are also legally qualified. The difficulty is that, as a lawyer, one is trained to have a sense of natural justice. A lawyer can always call a doctor to give technical evidence on medical matters. It is exactly the same as a High Court judge who does not have to be a doctor when dealing with a matter of medical negligence. The difficulty arises if someone is medically qualified but not au fait with natural justice. They cannot call someone to give evidence with regard to fairness and things of that nature while they are hearing a case.
It makes some sense to have only lawyers as coroners. Nevertheless, doctor coroners have provided an excellent service and fortunately, because of the transitional arrangements, all doctor coroners will be able to continue in office. We could have a provision whereby doctors took some kind of qualification or went on a course relating to judgecraft and things of that nature. In the future, doctors may well be capable of carrying out coronial office—that is a possibility. However, in the main, the society’s view is that it should probably be predominantly a lawyer post.
The society believes that the chief coroner should be a High Court judge, not a circuit judge. If a circuit judge is capable of carrying out that office, they should be promoted to High Court judge. It will require quite a bit of clout to get things moving as chief coroner, and only a High Court judge will have that.
Regarding the deputy chief coroner, I am concerned about schedule 7 because most High Court judges—leaving aside those who are involved as designated care judges in the family division—come from an adversarial background. They are not au fait with an inquisitorial jurisdiction and would not necessarily have a feeling for the coronial process. Furthermore, it is outrageous in this day and age to have an apparent discrimination against senior coroners and a glass ceiling that means that they can never become more than a coroner. A tribunal chairman can eventually end up as Lord Chief Justice. Why should coroners stay as coroners for their whole career?
The chief coroner will have a responsibility to keep coroners informed about changes in law and things of that nature. Those are matters that the Coroners’ Society currently deals with. The chief coroner will also have a responsibility for the training and development of coroners, which the Coroners’ Society is also involved with. In fact, the Coroners’ Society delivers training to coroners. If the chief coroner is going to be responsible for that, senior coroners will still be involved in those things. We may need one deputy chief coroner responsible for training, one for keeping coroners up to date and so on.
If you look at clause 30, on appeals, the first six items are about whether there has been a post mortem, whether a determination is correct, whether evidence has not been heard that should have been heard and things of that nature. Any senior coroner of 10 years’ standing or more is capable of turning those round very quickly.
My concern is that the chief coroners office will be staffed by civil servants and that some of those appellate judicial functions will be delegated to non-lawyers working to a script and rejecting or allowing appeals based upon pro formas. Part-time assistant deputy chief coroners working to clear backlogs would be far better, would give the chief coroner the capacity to deal with lots of things in lots ways and would keep flexibility.
It does not seem right that a glass ceiling will imposed by legislation in 2009. This country does not approve of glass ceilings in any other area and coroners are quite distressed by it—not because it affects our career development, but because the service would be better if coronial experience were used to help and develop the service.
The Chairman: Would anyone else on the panel like to come in on those specific questions?
Helen Shaw: On the question of the deputy chief coroner, in a sense, we agree with the Coroners’ Society about the chief coroner being a High Court judge. We think that that is an important and welcome element of judicial oversight in the system. We understand that, if someone is to deputise for the chief coroner, they have to have the same standing, but we also understand that there is the possibility in the Bill of a number of deputy chief coroners. We are concerned about some of the very good work that is being done in the existing coroners system and the need for that to be fed into the new structure. We very much support any changes that could be made to allow existing coroners of, as André says, 10 years’ standing or more to apply for one of those posts.
Alison Cox: I would endorse that view very strongly.
Q 84Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): My first question, Mr. Rebello, is, do you envisage that the chief coroner or somebody else will mediate or adjudicate, as it were, if a dispute arises between a local authority and its coroner?
André Rebello: This is regarding how the chief coroner will influence local authorities to comply with, I think, clause 23—the duty on the local authority to provide the infrastructure, accommodation and staffing that the coroner needs to carry out coronial administrative and investigative duties. One difficulty is, of course, that power is devolved to local government and local governments have to set their budgets. As well as being responsible for the coronial system, they are also responsible for children’s services, services for the elderly and lots of other essential things. From the media, we know about the tragic cases of essential services falling short. One can see that local authorities have a difficult job.
I cannot see a chief coroner turning round to a local authorities and saying, “That coroner needs a court to hear this inquest and a room for the jury. The jury need separate toilet facilities. There are 12 properly interested persons and each has a solicitor or barrister who needs conference rooms, and the witnesses need privacy and bereavement rooms. You will have to provide those.” If the local authority turned round and said, “Sorry, we can’t afford it,” I do not see what the chief coroner could do. Presumably, the chief coroner could apply for judicial review. It would be very strange legislation that had built into it a safeguard giving the chief coroner the power to enforce a sanction by judicial review. One would have thought that if Parliament was considering that, it would put some sanctions in to allow the chief coroner to deal with the situation. I cannot think of any method whereby the chief coroner could control a local authority budget. It is an invidious position.
In my submission notes, I say that there is a danger of the chief coroner being made a scapegoat because we will not have a national service even with this Bill. We have a national tone to the service and national leadership, but we still have 110 or so separate legal jurisdictions serving their own local infrastructure. Of course, every coronial jurisdiction is different. Some have prisons, some have special hospitals and some have large teaching hospitals. The infrastructure and services required in each are different.
Professor Furness: From the perspective of the Royal College of Pathologists, may I pick up on a point that Mr. Rebello made? We are a little concerned that the Bill seems to put the emphasis for the office of the chief coroner on the resolution of disputes and appeals. That is clearly important, but our concern is the variation in practice in coroner’s courts around the country, which Mr. Rebello touched on. We hoped that the coroner’s office would bring a degree of harmonisation. We, too, are concerned that we cannot see the teeth or the drive in the Bill to produce that harmonisation.
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Prepared 4 February 2009