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Lord Kingsland: In moving Amendment 75 I will speak also to Amendments 76 and 77. Amendments 75 and 76 belong together. They amend Schedule 3, which details the appointment of coroners. In particular, paragraph 2 allows the Lord Chancellor to appoint assistant coroners for an area. Before doing so, he must consult the Chief Coroner and every local authority whose area will be affected.
Our changes would make the senior coroner a consultee as well. Under paragraph 1 the senior coroner for an area is appointed by the local authority with the consent of the Chief Coroner and the Lord Chancellor. Given this deliberate interlocking of all the relevant parties, it is a curious omission that the senior coroner should not be consulted on the appointment of his assistants. It may be that the local authority is deemed to represent the views and interests of the senior coroner, whom it appointed. However, once that person has been established in the post, it would seem prudent, not to say courteous, to involve him in the process of appointing an assistant.
but not for medical practitioners to become coroners. This is a reversal of current practice and would rule out many very able people. In another place the Minister, Bridget Prentice, addressed the latter point by saying:
In future it will be increasingly important for coroners to be legally qualified. Given the duty of investigations that satisfy article 2, legal qualifications will become even more essential. They will also give the coroners the skill to examine evidence and conduct investigations in the most effective way.
At the moment, a small number of coroners are both medically and legally qualified, and about the same number are medically qualified only. The Coroners Society tells me that there are about four of each. Under the reformed system, it will not be necessary for the coroner to be medically qualified, as the medical examiners will be on hand to provide independent medical expertise. However, those who are currently medically rather than legally qualified will retain their posts under the reformed system and will simply be exempted from the legal qualification requirement. They will already have picked up forensic skills through experience and training, and that is not something that we want to lose.[Official Report, Commons Coroners and Justice Bill Committee, 24/2/09; col. 310.].
As the Minister admitted that the, albeit, small number of medically qualified coroners do a good job and have picked up forensic skills through experience and training, why is it assumed that newly appointed medical coroners could not do the same? I beg to move.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: I support in particular the first of the two amendments, although I support both. It is important that the coroner in charge of a particular
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Taking the second point, there are members of the medical profession who have acted extremely efficiently as coroners. They have acted with enormous enthusiasm and energy to learn about the law. Lawyers have to learn about medicine; in particular, lawyers sitting as coroners need to know something about how to understand what the medical examiner is saying or about medical evidence that may be given. It is possibly unjust to the medical profession to assume that a distinguished doctor would not be able to pick up as much law as a distinguished lawyer picks up medicine.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: I must thank my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss for the compliment that she paid to my professional group. I have an amendment in this group, Amendment 110. It was tabled after some discussion with INQUEST, which feels that the Chief Coroner should be a high court judge. I do not feel that its reasons are as tight as have been represented, but it is concerned that the Chief Coroners role should involve a High Court judge because it is a requirement in relation to the chairs of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and the president of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Tribunal; it should therefore involve someone of the same or equivalent standing, in view of the powers that he or she will have and the critical role that the Chief Coroner will play in the overall system. I would be interested to hear the Ministers response.
Lord Bach: Schedule 3 provides for a clear structure for the appointment of senior area and assistant coroners. Amendments 75 and 76 would compel the Lord Chancellor to directly consult the local senior coroner as well as the Chief Coroner and relevant local authorities before making a decision as to the number of area coroners and minimum number of assistant coroners that should be in that area. I understand from the noble Lord that his concern is that the Lord Chancellor should not impose coroner quotas with no regard for what senior coroners feel is needed in their area. Our problem with these amendments is that they would add a layer of consultation that we believe is not necessary to have in the Bill.
In practice, a senior coroners view will be taken into account as regards how many area and assistant coroners are required, by virtue of the Lord Chancellor consulting the Chief Coroner and local authorities concerned. First, the Chief Coroner, as head of the coroner service, will want to ensure that there are sufficient coroners and resources more generally to ensure that the standards of service he or she sets can be met across the country. It is highly likely that the Chief Coroner will be appointed during the
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Amendment 77 would restore the existing position whereby a coroner can be medically qualified only. We understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, about losing medical expertise in a reformed system. We do not believe that will be the case; if anything, medical expertise will be enhanced by the Bill. The noble Lord quoted my honourable friend in another place. My arguments are very much the same as hers. We believe it is becoming increasingly important for coroners to be legally qualified. The noble Lord referred to Article 2 in that regard. Legal qualifications, together with in-service training, will equip coroners with the necessary skills to conduct an investigation into a death in the most effective way, to weigh up evidence and reach the appropriate determination. However, the case working and court craft skills accumulated by current coroners who are medically qualified onlyfour of the current district coroners come into this categorywill not be squandered. As part of the transitional arrangements, the four coroners who are medically qualified will become senior coroners for their area when the Bill comes into force.
Another reason that it will not be necessary for coroners to be medically qualified in the reformed system is that, under Clause 19, medical examiners will be on handas we have debated this afternoonto provide independent medical expertise to all coroners, especially in medically complex cases, in addition to their main role of scrutinising deaths which are not referred to coroners. This is supplementary to the expertise that will continue to be provided by pathologists. This increased local medical supportthat is an important part of the Billtogether with national support from the Chief Coroners national medical adviser, will help ensure coroners have medical expertise to hand.
The final amendment in this group, Amendment 110, would make circuit judges ineligible for appointment as the Chief Coroner. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, may have been prompted to table this amendment by a concern that a circuit judge would not have sufficiently senior judicial status to be the head of the coroner system in England and Wales. While we, of course, agree that the person the Lord Chief Justice appoints as Chief Coroner should have sufficient seniority to head the coroner system, we believe this amendment would be unduly restrictive. The person appointed as Chief Coroner may always be a High Court rather than a circuit judge, but we would not want to put a blanket restriction on senior circuit judges being considered, which is what this amendment would do. It might unnecessarily narrow the pool of qualified
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In this group is government Amendment 218E, which I will move in due course. This is an important transitional provision to enable us to move to larger full-time coroner areas in as efficient a way as possible. A current, solely medically qualified coroner, or any coroner over 70, will be eligible to stay in post if their jurisdiction merges with another in the reformed coroner system.
As I have said, currently four coroners, plus a handful of deputy and assistant deputy coroners, are medically qualified. Although we cannot foresee how many coroners over 70 will be practising when their areas are merged, there are likely to be very few, as most coroners step down between the ages of 65 and 70. Despite the relatively small numbers involved, this amendment is important as it will enable us to make the most of serving coroners and the experience that they have built up.
The Minister drew attention to the fact that I quoted a substantial passage by the Minister in another place. I did that partly out of a sporting instinct, to put the argument of the other side, and partly to save the Minister from rehearsing it in your Lordships House. He made a cogent point by drawing to my attention the new regime which embraces the concept of the medical adviser. I should like to consider Amendment 77 in that context when taking a view on whether I should bring it back on Report.
However, I feel much less sympathetic to the Ministers honeyed words about Amendments 75 and 76. As I understand it, the new system is supposed to be some ideal balance between the centre and the periphery. The Bill introduces an overarching Chief Coroner and deputy chief coroner and, under that, increasing degrees of localism. As the Minister knows, we have supported that concept. It seems perfectly sensible for the Lord Chancellor, in deciding to appoint a new assistant coroner, to consult the local authority in the area in which the new assistant coroner is going to work. However, if the local authority is consulted, why should the senior coroner for the area not be consulted as well? The Lord Chancellor is already going down to the grass roots so far as the local authority is concerned; so why is it so much more difficult for him to go down to the grass roots with respect to the senior coroner? I find that response uncharacteristically irrational of the Minister, to such a degree that I wish to test the opinion of the Committee on Amendment 75.
Clause 24 states that the relevant authority must secure the provision of whatever staff are needed by the coroner to carry out his functions. Implicit in that is the recognition that out-of-hours staff must be provided if necessary: for example, in the context of a non-invasive MRI scan. However, it is worth emphasising that coroners may be called on at any time; and it is vital that they can function properly in those circumstances. That necessitates a substantial commitment of time, preparation and, not least, money, from the authority.
This suggests a number of questions for the Government. What role will the Chief Coroner have in helping to secure that commitment? What happens should there be a financial shortfall? What recourse would the senior coroner have should the provision of staff be inadequate? I beg to move.
Clause 24 already states that staff must be available to enable a coroner to carry out their functions. To do this, coroners must ensure that either they or a member of their staff are on call 24 hours a day almost entirely to ensure that a post-mortem can be urgently carried out where necessary and that arrangements are made to inform the family of the coroners decision. This already occurs in the best areas under the present system, and coroners in particular already have a requirement, in Rule 4 of the Coroners Rules, to ensure that they or a deputy coroner are available at all times. In a reformed system, we expect the same level of cover. Indeed, the effect of Rule 4 is likely to be repeated in rules to be made under Clause 36.
The Government fully accept that there is work to be done in the implementation stage of the Bill to ensure that coroners have the necessary support from coroners officers and other staff to enable them to meet the raised expectations that we have of them in the quality of service that is provided to bereaved families. I assure noble Lords that this is one of our main priorities, not least because it is the function of such officers to deliver most of the services to families, under the guidance of the coroner, which are set out in the charter for the bereaved. I think it would be most expeditious if I were to answer the noble Lords specific questions by letter. I hope, in view of the assurances that I have given, that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Kingsland: I am most grateful for the noble Lords response. I have one further question for him. I asked three questions at the end of my short intervention.
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(2) The Coroner for Treasure may conduct an investigation concerning an object in respect of which notification has not been given under that section if he or she has reason to suspect that the object is treasure.
(a) whether or not the object in question is treasure or treasure trove;
(b) if it is treasure or treasure trove, who found it, where it was found and when it was found.
This is subject to paragraph 11 of Schedule (Coroner for Treasure and Assistant Coroners for Treasure) (which enables an assistant coroner acting as an Assistant Coroner for Treasure to perform functions of the Coroner for Treasure).
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