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Legal rights and coronavirus: Ongoing inquests and Coroner’s investigations

As the coronavirus increasingly affects our daily lives we aim to provide some useful discussions on legal matters during these uncertain times. Today, human rights solicitor Merry Varney discusses changes to the inquest system during this time relating to ongoing inquests and those that have already been opened

Coroner
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Merry is a partner in the human rights department.  She has a particular interest in using the law to protect children, vulnerable adults and patients.  She tweets as @merryvarney
The current health crisis in the UK and across the world in relation to COVID-19 will bring additional burdens for bereaved families whose loved one’s death is already the subject of a Coroner’s investigation and may have an inquest listed.
 
Many bereaved families will now face changes to how an inquest will proceed, it may mean that they are asked to wait longer for their opportunity to find out about how their loved one died or for the inquest to be held virtually.
 
On 19 March 2020 HM Chief Coroner Mark Lucraft QC issued what was his third note to Coroners in light of the health crisis. The note gives some guidance about how Coroners should act in what is a difficult time for them and their staff. 
 
The key points in the guidance are explained below and if you are involved in an ongoing inquest into your loved one’s death, please ensure you speak to your solicitor or the relevant Coroner’s Court if you have a hearing between now and 28 August 2020.
 
The headline is that whether or not your loved one’s inquest progresses will be a matter for the Senior Coroner and her/his team.
 
The guidance says that jury inquests due to start between 31 March and Friday 28 August of any significant length, probably 3 days or more, are to be adjourned and rearranged for after 1 September 2020.
 
Long or complex inquests not involving a jury due to start between 31 March and Friday 28 August, should be reviewed by Coroners and may have to be adjourned.  Less complex inquests and pre-inquest reviews (PIR) which are listed to start between now and 31 March should generally proceed where at all possible, subject to individual factors in the case.
 
The note does not set out a definition of a ‘complex’ or ‘less complex’ inquest or the individual factors relevant to whether an inquest or PIR should be postponed. 
 
I anticipate the key considerations will be:
 
  • Is there a viable way of holding the hearing, with effective participation of Interested Persons, especially the bereaved family, using video or telephone? 
  • Are those involved able to participate, including where legal representatives are instructed that clients have been able to give instructions?  For those with children at home, are they able to sit for full Court days? Are any family members of other Interested Persons frontline keyworkers?
  • Are there many live witnesses? Are these frontline keyworkers such as NHS staff or police officers?
 
HM Chief Coroner has understandably recognised that due to COVID-19 Coroners and their staff are likely to face increased workloads, and there is a suggestion to Coroners "that it may be prudent to complete as many inquests as possible now, in light of potential increases in workload in the coming weeks and months". 
 
Much as I appreciate this sentiment and I hope that for bereaved families who do want the inquest process completed as quickly as possible above all else this applies, however I think for many of the bereaved families I represent, there will be a reluctance to proceed swiftly unless everyone is satisfied they can participate fully and that the necessary witnesses can be called without removing them from frontline duties. 
 
I have heard stories recently of complex legal matters – meetings and hearings – involving multiple parties and witnesses going ahead successfully using video and telephone conferencing, so it is possible and as HM Chief Coroner ends with, “we must make every effort to maintain a functioning court system in support of the administration of justice and rule of law”.  
 
To this end I have my first video PIR next week and will be desperately hoping neither my dog nor one of my children makes an appearance!

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