Legislative Scrutiny: Coroners and Justice Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by British Irish Rights Watch

  British Irish RIGHTS WATCH (BIRW) is an independent non-governmental organisation that monitors the human rights dimension of the conflict and the peace process in Northern Ireland. Our services are available to anyone whose human rights have been affected by the conflict, regardless of religious, political or community affiliations, and we take no position on the eventual constitutional outcome of the peace process.

  We are responding to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) call for evidence about the draft legislative programme 2008-09. Of particular significance for BIRW is the draft Coroners and Death Certification Bill. Drawing on 18 years of work in Northern Ireland, our experience is focussed mainly on the use of lethal force by the state where the failure to provide adequate Article 2 ECHR compliant investigations into these deaths is significant. Our comments, therefore, are framed by that experience. However, since contentious cases often test systems to their limits, we hope that our comments will be helpful in other contexts.

  The draft Coroners Bill, published for consultation in 2006, attempted to address the reforms recommended by Professor Tom Luce in his Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003) (Luce Review). However, this Bill, unlike the Luce Review, does not apply to Northern Ireland. We have concerns that, should this Bill become law then it will be applied to Northern Ireland without appropriate consultation. Any application of this Bill to Northern Ireland will fail to take into account the legacy of 30 years of conflict and the existing deep flaws in Northern Ireland's coronial system. The Luce review clearly noted the need for these recommendations to be implement in Wales and Northern Ireland but with suitable adaptations.[29]

  The European Convention on Human Rights imposes a duty on the state to investigate a death when it has been caused by the use of force, a violation of Article 2 (right to life). An inquest is the appropriate place for the state to comply with the procedural aspects of Article 2. Therefore, any changes to the coronial system must bear the role of the inquest in the procedural aspects of Article 2 compliance in mind.

  Changes to the coronial system are significant in the light of the proposals within the Counter-Terrorism Bill 2008, which sought to change the nature of inquests, by the appointment of special coroners or dispensing with a jury. Although we welcomed the fact these clauses were removed from the Counter-Terrorism Bill, we have concerns they may be inserted into the Draft Coroners and Death Certification Bill. BIRW noted that the clauses undermined the legitimate expectation of a number of families in Northern Ireland specifically, but also in England, of receiving an independent, effective, open and accountable investigation into a death. We had particular concerns that specially appointed coroners could be appointed to inquests already open, which would have particular pertinence in Northern Ireland, causing further delays and secrecy. For example, in the death of Pearse Jordan, an inquest into his death was opened in 1995, delayed by the obstruction of the RUC and later PSNI over the disclosure of documents, the subject of a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights in 2001 and a House of Lords judgment in 2007, and may now be further delayed by these new measures. Some of the measures which were to be introduced by the Counter-Terrorism Bill are mirrored in the controversial Inquiries Act 2005, which placed control for inquiries in the hands of the Secretary of State, undermining any attempts for such inquiries to be independent or compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights.

  British Irish RIGHTS WATCH would like to highlight those aspects of the Coroners Bill which we feel give rise to significant human rights concerns. These are:

Clause 10, Purpose of investigation

  BIRW has concerns about the lack of guidance on where it would be necessary for a coroner to interpret the purpose of an investigation in compliance with Article 2 of ECHR; considering the Human Rights Act was enacted only in the last decade, some corners may be unfamiliar with their obligations.

Clause 12, Action to prevent other deaths

  BIRW welcomes the fact that an organisation which receives a report from a coroner is obliged to respond. This is particularly pertinent for the security forces and their use of lethal force, where changes to policy and/or practice, could prevent further deaths. This enhances the preventative feature of the inquest system; however, to be truly effective, there is a need to hold timely inquests so that reports can be relevant to organisations.

Clause 41, Presence of the public at inquests

  The presence of the public at inquests is important; it is hoped that the Coroners Rules will, where possible, maintain this principle.

Clause 57, Training and guidance

  It is hoped that coroners will be trained in key human rights issues alongside any other training. This is particularly pertinent in cases where significant human rights issues are raised, such as the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Clause 60-61, Appeals to the Chief Coroner

  BIRW welcome the appeal procedure available within the inquest system to "interested persons". We agree that it is important that the appeals procedure is not misused by malicious complaints. However, it is important to note that there is nothing in Bill on the subject of legal aid. If families are to participate more fully in the inquest system, then there is a need to provide them with appropriate and accessible legal representation.


  BIRW welcome the introduction of an inspection system for coroners by her Majesty's Inspectors of Court Administration, which we hope will improve accountability and transparency.

Reporting deaths to the coroner

  BIRW welcome the amendment which makes provision for medical practitioners to notify the coroner of relevant deaths. However, we draw attention to the Luce Review, which stated that this power should be extended to professional health care personnel, members of the care inspectorate, fire service personnel, funeral staffs, families and others.[30]

Outcome and scope of an inquest

  The Bill has not implemented the Luce Review recommendation concerning the outcome of inquests. Crucially, the Bill does not provide for an analysis of whether there were systemic failings which may have prevented the death.[31] Equally, the Bill does not provide for regulatory bodies or inspectorates to describe in their reports, any of the coroners recommendations.[32]

Appointment of a lawyer

  The Luce Review recommended the appointment of a lawyer, as Counsel to the inquest, in situations where the inquest is exceptionally long or complex; this has not been included in the Bill.[33]

Multiple deaths

  The Bill has not implemented the Luce Review's recommendation that following a disaster leading to multiple deaths, the inquest should be held by, or at the level of, the head of the coronial jurisdiction.[34]


  The Luce Review noted the need for all coroner areas to regularly audit their inquest and investigation timings.[35] In Northern Ireland, delays to inquests have left families without an acceptable investigation into their loved ones' death and substantially undermined confidence in the justice system.

  BIRW draw the Joint Committee's attention to the possibility that this Bill could be applied to Northern Ireland. As already noted, while we acknowledge there is a need to reform the coronial system in Northern Ireland, such changes should be the subject of a separate consultation and should take into account the number of contentious deaths in Northern Ireland and the historical failure of the state to adequately address them.

October 2008

29   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 11, Point 60 Back

30   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 4, points 2 and 3 Back

31   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 8, points 30 and 31 Back

32   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 8, point 34 Back

33   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 9, point 40 Back

34   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 10, Point 52 Back

35   See Fundamental Review of Inquests (2003), Professor Tom Luce: Chapter 11, Point 68 Back

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