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

Memorandum submitted by HM Deputy Coroner, Selena Lynch

  I understand that the Joint Committee on Human Rights is considering the compatibility of the Coroners and Justice Bill with the UK's human rights obligations, and that submissions should be sent to you.

  I have worked in the coronial service since 1990, first as an Assistant Deputy Coroner, then as a full time Coroner for Inner South London between 1997 and 2005 and since then as a Deputy and Assistant Deputy in several districts: the Royal Household, Oxfordshire, Inner South London, South London and North London. My background is in the law, as a solicitor then later a barrister specialising in criminal work.

  I am concerned that the Bill as drafted will restrict the ability of the inquest to discharge the State's obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This may render some aspects of the Bill incompatible with Convention rights, and lead to arguments for public inquiries in some cases.

  Article 2 ECHR imposes duties on the State. First, a substantive obligation not to take life without justification, and to establish a framework of laws, precautions, procedures and means of enforcement which will protect life. Second, a procedural obligation to initiate an effective public investigation by an independent official body into any death occurring in circumstances in which it appears that the substantive obligation has been, or may have been violated; and it appears that agents of the state are or may be in some way implicated.

  Both these obligations trigger the need for the state to conduct an investigation of some sort following a death or near death.

  Inquests do not deal with cases of near death, and there is current debate about the way in which the State can fulfil its obligation in this regard. As far as I know, there has been no consideration of the use of the reformed coronial jurisdiction for such cases.

  In cases of death, the inquest will usually be the way in which the state discharges its duty to investigate (see R(Middleton) v West Somerset Coroner [2004] UKHL 10 [2004] 2 All ER 465). Whilst the nature of the investigation will vary according to the circumstances, it must always be independent.

  The Bill provides for the apparent strengthening of the relationship between Coroner and local authority and a medical examiner system. These provisions may be seen to undermine the independence of the Coroner.


  An independent investigation requires independent evidence-gathering. Regrettably, the Bill makes no proper mention of the resources and nature of the Coroner's investigation. Clause 23 provides that the local authority "must secure the provision of whatever officers and other staff are needed by the coroners for that area to carry out their functions". This could be perceived as lacking independence, as coroners are often required to consider the actions or inactions of local authority employees and departments. In those areas where the police are willing and able to continue providing officers, independence remains an issue in cases involving the police.

  The perception of a lack of independence is perhaps made worse by the provision that salaries and terms of office for the Coroner are to be a matter of agreement between the Coroner and the local authority (Schedule 3, Part 4).


  The medical examiner is to be appointed and monitored by the very agency that he/she is being asked to assess, and the prohibition against interference contained in c.18(5) will not adequately serve to avoid the risk or appearance of a lack of independence.

February 2009

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