209.We would like to express our profound gratitude to all those working in and with the Coroner Service for the great efforts they have made to keep the service operating during the pandemic. This effort has included people putting their physical safety at risk where they have needed to attend inquests in person and a range of other pressures on people’s well-being.
210.The Coroners’ Society told us how difficult it had been to keep up with the pandemic:
Coroners had to work very long days, often seven days a week without respite to ensure that mortuary capacity and funeral capacity was not overrun to collapse. Collaborative working with the police and local authority partners on excess death planning, the mortuary, burial and cremation authorities and doctors in the community and hospitals ensured the infrastructure did not collapse. Public services usually come to notice when things go badly wrong: it should be noted that the coroners’ service worked and worked well in these difficult times because of the efforts of all concerned.
211.Debbie Large, Head of the Kent Coroner Service, told us how they had rolled out remote hearings quickly and of the additional burden of dealing with death while working from home:
At no notice, we went paperless and used [Microsoft] Teams to run inquests. All of our staff worked from home. That has been a challenge. I have been immensely impressed by our staff, who have a really difficult job. They went home and got on with it. Working from home, we dealt with probably a 50% increase in the referral rate over the lockdown period. We have worked very carefully with our team to make sure it keeps work-home boundaries very clear. Our saying is always, “Leave death at the door; don’t take it home with you.” That has been a challenge for us. Our team continues to work from home.
212.The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales also told us about concerns for staff welfare: “Support for coroners and for the staff varies widely from nothing to access to psychologists.” The Coroners’ Court Support Service (CCSS) raised issues for bereaved people from virtual hearings:
Many Coroners were quick to respond and converted smaller Inquests into virtual hearings. Whilst this did enable bereaved families to get some form of conclusion, it may have put pressure on them to accept the virtual hearing when there was little or no alternative.
213.The CCSS also suggested that referrals for support could have been dealt with better: “The CCSS would have welcomed the opportunity to have bereaved families referred to them for virtual or telephone support via our National Helpline and via our Court volunteer teams.” The CCSS also told us that there were inconsistent approaches by coroners to what hearings can be dealt with remotely or not and who has to attend in person and that is struggling to staff all the courts it used to.
214.Debbie Large, Head of Kent Coroner Service, thought it would be helpful to have virtual hearings as an option in future: “I would be very sad to see that everything was virtual, but some people would like to attend an inquest but find it difficult—for example, families overseas.”
215.Judge Lucraft told us of a growing backlog of inquests and the reasons for them: “Clearly, there will be a backlog of jury inquests simply because finding spaces large enough to hold jury inquests is an issue. There will be a backlog of some other inquests where the key participants in that inquest hearing will themselves be frontline medical workers.”
216.Head of Kent Coroner Service, Debbie Large, gave examples: “We have estimated, and we are making provision for 220 court days as additional capacity. That is what we are making provision for. It is an estimate. We are working with the senior coroners to identify the number of court days they need.”
217.It is not known how many inquests have been put on hold nationally since March 2020, but it is likely that many jury and other inquests that involve several interested persons will be subject to delays.
218.André Rebello, Honorary Secretary of the Coroners’ Society, suggested that a temporary suspension of the need for juries could help reduce the backlog: “If we have to sit with juries, many of these cases may go on for another four or five years while we catch up, because death does not stop.”
219.Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, raised the importance of juries for some inquests: “Juries actually play an extremely important role at inquests, particularly where you are looking at the conduct of the state and article 2.” Alex Chalk, was also against reducing the role of juries: “juries and pandemics do not go well together [ … ] we take the view that the single biggest lever that we could pull, which would be to get rid of juries, is not the appropriate policy response, however tempting that might be, because of the read-across to other areas [of the justice system], quite apart from anything else.”
220.We asked the Minister, Alex Chalk, what measures the Ministry of Justice was taking to reduce longer waiting times, particularly for jury inquests. He told us:
The guidance is there; the coherence is there. Performance is uneven, but it is uneven in respect of HMCTS as well. The short answer is yes, we are watching; yes, we are observing who is doing well and responding well, and we are seeking to do everything we can to try, with the help of the Chief Coroner, to roll out that best practice and to assist those who are finding it more difficult.
221.The Coroner Service responded well to covid-19, and we express our thanks to all those involved under very difficult circumstances. A considerable number of inquests have been delayed because of the pandemic restrictions. We were unconvinced by the Minister’s response on how the MoJ will support the Coroner Service to reduce waiting times. The Ministry of Justice should liaise with the Chief Coroner and consider what central government support may be needed to help the Coroner Service to recover from the pandemic.
222.We encourage the Chief Coroner to collect information from each Coroner Service Area on the challenges they face because of the pandemic and communicate the overall picture to the Ministry of Justice.
225 The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales (), para 4 of the executive summary
226 The Coroners’ Society of England and Wales (), section 1(f)
227 The Coroners’ Courts Support Service (), para 4
228 The Coroners’ Courts Support Service (), para 4
229 The Coroners’ Courts Support Service (), para 4