Today, the Chief Coroner of England and Wales has issued some guidance to coroners regarding the COVID-19 situation.
The guidance explains that because coroners’ workloads have the potential to increase significantly in the coming weeks and months, it may mean that inquests will need to be adjourned. The Chief Coroner has therefore issued the following advice to senior coroners:
- Adjourn any jury inquests (of significant length), which are due to start between 31 March 2020 and 28 August 2020. Cases which are scheduled for 1 September 2020 onwards should generally remain in the list. In practice this is likely to mean that the vast majority of jury inquests will be adjourned to a later date. It is a matter for each senior coroner whether they adjourn to a (realistic) new date now, or leave the position to be reviewed in due course and a new date fixed then.
- Similarly, long or complex inquests not involving a jury which are due to start between 31 March 2020 and 28 August 2020, including those which require large numbers of witnesses to give evidence in person, should be reviewed and may have to be adjourned.
- Inquests which are ongoing – including jury inquests – should not be automatically abandoned. These inquests should generally proceed in the hope that they can be completed. However, there may be factors, such as the loss of jurors who are self-isolating, or other events outside your control, which may mean that some inquests will inevitably and regrettably have to be stopped and re-heard at a future date.
- Less complex inquests and pre-inquest reviews which are listed to start between now and 31 March 2020 should generally proceed where at all possible, subject to individual factors in the case.
- Coroners should make every attempt, where feasible, to use modern technology to enable the participation of the bereaved family and other Interested Persons and their representatives and those giving evidence. This will include, where possible, video links, Skype, FaceTime or other applications and the telephone.
- Coroners should review the position in respect of less complex inquests beyond 31 March 2020. There may be other factors which mean cases which otherwise might proceed should be adjourned. This may include the vulnerability of family members and other Interested Persons in relation to COVID-19 risk factors.
- The coroner should seek views on adjournments from Interested Persons where possible. However, the decision on how to proceed in general rests with the senior coroner for the jurisdiction, and for each case, with the coroner hearing the matter.
- All those attending court should follow Public Heath England guidance suitably adjusted to reflect the distinct features of a court as a working environment for all concerned, including jurors.
- I am acutely aware that coroners may find themselves under significant pressure over the coming months. In any event, coroners may have no choice but to prioritise investigation and decision making on report of death over inquests and this may well lead to adjournment.
- Welfare of all coroners, coroners’ officers and those working in the coronial system is vitally important
- Finally, it is ultimately a matter for each senior coroner to take listing decisions for their coroner area. In some jurisdictions the pressures and issues will be different and different approaches, within the framework of Guidance above, may need to be taken.
What does this mean for care providers?
If your service has any upcoming inquests, you may want to ask your legal representatives (if you are legally represented) to contact the Coroner to request a telephone Pre-Inquest Review Hearing (PIR) to ascertain if the inquest will proceed and if so, what measures need to be put in place to facilitate this.
If you would like to read the Chief Coroner’s advice to senior coroners in full, a copy of the guidance can be accessed at the following link:
The situation is fast moving and the Chief Coroner expects substantive guidance on COVID-19 deaths to be issued early next week subject to coordination with other interested parties. We will update you further once this guidance has been issued.
We know that it is very difficult time for health and social care workers at present. If you do need any further advice or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact the team at Ridouts on 0207 317 0340.