Coroners and Justice Bill

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Q 85Mr. Boswell: Does that remark also bind on the function of the coroner’s office in trying to get a degree of consistency in practice? Is that also a concern of yours?
Professor Furness: That, too, varies. I would regard that as the local responsibility of the coroner, but it comes under the same point.
Q 86Mr. Boswell: You may wish to comment on that, Mr. Rebello.
André Rebello: No.
Q 87Mr. Boswell: Before I finish, I will make two quick points about your evidence, Mr. Rebello. First, you talked about having some sense of natural justice when you were discussing whether doctors could discharge the quasi-legal—
André Rebello: I am not saying that doctors do not have a statutory role.
Q 88Mr. Boswell: Is that not also true of rules of evidence?
André Rebello: Absolutely.
Q 89Mr. Boswell: I have a blank on whether my final point is referred to in the papers. Do you have any strong views that you wish to share on the age of retirement of coroners?
André Rebello: My wife does. The big difficulty I see is that each coroner, even with the Bill, has to negotiate locally for terms and conditions. It surprises the Bar and the main judiciary that I have to work for 40 years to get my pension. The judiciary has a judicial pension after 20 years. It is not surprising that, apart from the more senior members of the judiciary, most judges retire in their early 60s. Most coroners have to keep going until they are 70 or nearly 80 because they cannot afford to retire. That is an historical issue.
When I left private practice in 1999 to become a full-time coroner, after having been a part-time coroner, my income halved. At that stage, I was buying into my partnership. The money I got from my partnership paid off my loans and I had no pension. I started from scratch. If I was a circuit judge or a High Court judge, after 20 years I would have a full judicial pension. I could retire and leave it to other people to get on with the work. As a coroner, I have to pay into the local government pension scheme for 40 years. It seems nonsensical that nothing in the Bill sets national standards for terms for coroners. Parliament has an opportunity to put things right and to set the right tone. That opportunity should be taken.
The Chairman: You had the opportunity to do some lobbying and you have done it.
I should have said this at the beginning, so, before we move on, I remind hon. Members and witnesses that we are bound by the internal knives that the Committee agreed under Mr. Cook’s chairmanship this morning. That means that this evidence session must finish at 5.30 pm, the second at 6.15 pm and the third at 6.55 pm, because there will be a vote in the House at 7 pm. I hope that I do not have to interrupt anybody mid-sentence, but if I have to I will.
Q 90Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): To follow on from Mr. Boswell’s questions, and before going on to the next subject, I have a couple of questions about resourcing.
Mr. Rebello, you were talking about what could be done to ensure proper resourcing for local coroners. What would you like to see introduced? You talked about judicial review, which is clearly not an ideal scenario. What would you like to see in the Bill that you think would get around that?
André Rebello: The Bill says that the local authority must do various things, but it does not set any standards. If the Bill referred to rules that were to be made later with regard to that type of accommodation—what needs to be provided—and if the chief coroner, when in post in shadow, could start a shopping list, if that was possible, saying that on such a date, when the law comes in, this is what we would expect every local authority to have and this is what the law expects them to provide, local authorities would have time to get ready.
Q 91Jenny Willott: As precise as that?
André Rebello: But I do not know what sanctions there are, because we are not having a national service. There is no point devolving power to local authorities and then telling them what to do with their money. That is the difficulty.
Q 92Jenny Willott: If that were not to happen, do you think that some dispute resolution mechanism should be introduced? At the moment, coroners are pretty much left to argue with their local authorities, are they not?
André Rebello: They are. To be fair to officials in the coroners unit in the Ministry of Justice, when the situation becomes extreme officials intercede and on many occasions local authorities have provided what they refused to provide in the past.
Q 93Jenny Willott: Is that official?
André Rebello: No, it is not official. Basically, coroners could embarrass their local authorities. You could summon the chief executive to give evidence and ensure that all the media were there. You can be very hard headed about it. That would be my style; most coroners are very nice and would not do it.
Alison Cox: To endorse what André says, I want to say that some of our bereaved families would be very happy to do that. If there was a failing of the service, they would be the ones to suffer. The coroners put the issue in place, but I do not want anyone to forget that the people at risk here, if the service is not improved, are the families. I tell you this—they would not hesitate to cause embarrassment, especially with a bit of encouragement from me.
Q 94Jenny Willott: I have a couple of questions about the issue of certified inquests, or secret inquests. I wonder if anyone on the panel can give us any examples of “real harm”, as the wording is in the Bill, that has been done to the public interest by holding an inquest in public, or if there are any examples that anyone can give of inquests that were unable to reach a satisfactory conclusion as a result of information that could not be made public.
Helen Shaw: In answer to your question, no, there are no inquests that we know of that have not been able to reach a satisfactory conclusion. That is inquests that we know of, in terms of clause 11. There are a number of cases that have involved sensitive material and the combination of existing provisions has been sufficient to deal with those inquests concluding properly. Can you remind me of your question about “real harm”?
Jenny Willott: Yes. The Bill says that one of the reasons that an inquest could be held in secret would be on the grounds of
“real harm to the public interest”.
Can the panel think of any examples of that?
Helen Shaw: No. We were thinking through our 20 years of working at inquests around a lot of contentious custody deaths and we could not think of any examples. We know that this clause has arisen because of two particular cases and there are very particular issues that need to be addressed. We think that the clause is much too widely drawn and we hope that we can speak to the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor to find a more sensible solution. The clause is a hugely wide proposal, which we think is not necessary. We hope that we can find something that is much more precise, that deals with the matters that arose in those two particular cases and that will refer to issues under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
Deborah Coles: Look at the inquest into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes—we will be supplying the Committee with a detailed briefing, including a case study, on that—which was a very high profile case involving many interested parties, a family who were desperate to find out the truth and a lot of public interest. That inquest managed to perform its vital function in terms of accountability and a jury narrative that identified any concerns.
There was evidence heard as part of that inquest that had to find alternative mechanisms other than being held in public—public interest immunity certificates and the like. If we look at that inquest as being an extremely good example of a high profile case where people might have suggested that there could be harm in terms of security and the issues in which it was engaged, it is an example of the coroners inquest system being able to deal with a case of such complexity.
Q 95Jenny Willott: My final question is about the role of families in secret inquests. Are you happy with the provisions in the Bill for the protection of families and their involvement in certified inquests? Are you reassured by what the Government said, or do you have concerns about the impact of certified inquests on the families involved?
Helen Shaw: We have huge concerns because the proposal effectively excludes the family and their chosen legal representatives from the part of the inquest dealing with the sensitive material. We think that that means that the inquest would not comply with article 2 of the Human Rights Act 1998. On a more human level, the family would be excluded even if the material goes into exactly why somebody died. We think that is wrong in terms of an inquest process that they are caught up in through no choice of their own, but through which they obviously want to find out why their loved one died.
Q 96Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): If we can turn briefly to resources. When I dealt with coroners’ inquests in my somewhat distant and limited previous role as a solicitor, they tended to be held in magistrates courts—that is the way it is set in my mind. Looking at the circumstances for witnesses, for example, is there a variation in the venues? If there is, what kind of venues are used for coroners’ inquests?
André Rebello: Absolutely. If I could explain: I am co-located with the registration service in Liverpool—I have a purpose built courtroom with a jury room off the courtroom. My personal office is about a third the size of this room. We have interview rooms for families, five interview rooms upstairs for advocates and two other ceremony rooms. We have lots of space for registrars to report deaths to me, we have a video presenter in court, all the equipment—loop systems—anything you want, we have got. My authority is brilliant.
Other coroners, if they hold a long inquest, will move from village hall to village hall. There is nowhere for anyone to go, they borrow magistrates courts—with families mixing with criminals in the court corridor. The inquest that has been mentioned was held at Kennington Oval, which is totally inappropriate for a coroner’s court. I am sure that within the court service there could have been a proper court for an inquest of such importance. The system is outrageous. In 2009 coroners should not be borrowing the same type of venue to hold a court that people would use for a silver wedding or 21st birthday party. It is just not on. Of course, the law is now there for local authorities to provide it. The difficulty is that such are the demands on local authorities that the budget is already accounted for. They are inspected in other areas and they have to deliver in other areas. There is not the spare money for them to develop a coroners system. This is all new money that needs to be found to build an infrastructure. We have also had the closing down of magistrates courts and the grouping together of magistrates benches, such that courts are no longer available because the land has been sold off. Yet we have magnificent places such as the civil justice centre in Manchester and a smaller centre in Liverpool. We have these across the country and many of them are grossly under-used. The difficulty with the current law is that coroners cannot hear a case outside their own jurisdiction. Hopefully, with this Bill coroners will be able to hear a case anywhere even if it means going across a couple of boundaries.
Q 97Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Do you think it would be appropriate for a chief coroner to have powers to request or require additional resources and facilities where perhaps there needs to be a greater in-depth investigation, perhaps where there has been a cluster of deaths, so that further examination can take place—I am thinking in particular of my own constituency where we had a cluster of deaths by suicide—so that the families could have a better understanding of why those deaths took place, that could inform local services, that could give some satisfaction to families as to why people have died but also do some work to help prevent future deaths? Should that be a nationally or locally based study?
André Rebello: What you are describing is the coroners’ system in New Zealand and Victoria, Australia. This Bill is an awful long way from there. Like we exported cricket, we exported the coronial system with the empire. Everywhere else moved on but we have stayed back in 1887. Even under this Bill, coroners look at individual cases, an individual body. There is not the facility to hold more than one inquest into one case at a time. If you have a train crash—one incident that has caused many deaths—there will be different registrable particulars and a different cause of death with regard to each of the individuals. However, the means and circumstances in which those deaths occurred will be the same, so it would be a nonsense to hear that evidence several times. It is not really possible for a coroner to cluster together cases. The other thing is that individual families might not welcome it because each death is as special as any other. It does not matter if your child falls downstairs and dies or if your child dies in the street. It still hurts as much as anything can ever hurt. We are dealing with individuals here—individual people and families—and to cluster cases together is not right.
If there is a trend and if a few cases perhaps need an overview, it may be possible to have a public inquiry, or something of that nature looking at those circumstances together, but I am not sure that the coroner system, as mentioned in the Coroners and Justice Bill, will be able to achieve that. Perhaps the chief coroner might be able to pull together findings from a few cases and hold some kind of inquiry, but there is not the mechanism or facility for that to happen.
Deborah Coles: The coroner is right. The current system could not cope with that. But inquests are really interested in that kind of proposal. We certainly looked at this when there was a cluster of deaths in Styal women’s prison, where six deaths occurred in a period of a year. We felt that rather than having a separate inquest into each of those deaths that would take place over a period of years, because of the delay in the system, an inquiry would have benefited everybody concerned.
I take on board the coroner’s point about each individual death being personal to that family. Of course, you should not lose sight of the fact that you would need an inquiry into the individual death. But where those deaths point to possible systemic failings and a pattern of concerns, certainly you could have a broader inquiry that would be meaningful for everybody concerned.
That leads me to an additional point on the purpose of the inquest system. The coroner mentioned the system in Australia and New Zealand. What we really like about that system is that its priority is death prevention—that is its key purpose—and learning lessons. All the families that we talked to said that, although nothing will bring their relative back, they take comfort in knowing that lessons are, perhaps, learned. We are disappointed that there are not effective mechanisms in the Bill to ensure that there is accountable learning, so that something is done with regard to the outcomes of inquests: the coroners’ rule 43 reports and important jury narrative verdicts. There is no proposal in the Bill to deal with the collation, monitoring and publication of those things. That is an important omission.
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