Memorandum submitted by HM Deputy Coroner,
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  UKHL 10 
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.