Coroner reforms in the UK: what happened this summer?
Published on 20th Sep 2022
Streamlining reforms in the Judicial Review and Courts Act aim to tackle a post-pandemic backlog of inquest cases
The Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 (JRCA), which received Royal Assent on 28 April and came into force two months later, has attracted significant commentary for its changes to the High Court's jurisdiction – but also brings in a range of other changes for coroner's courts.
The reforms indicate that dealing with a backlog of inquest cases is a clear priority for the government. The JRCA reforms also expand the circumstances in which coroners can discontinue an investigation where the cause of death becomes clear prior to a hearing, give coroners the power to conduct non-contentious inquests entirely in writing, and allow for inquests to take place entirely by video link.
Discontinuation of investigations
The new provisions allow for the discontinuance of an investigation where the cause of death becomes clear during the process of an investigation. Previously, an investigation could only be discontinued in a very specific circumstance; namely, when a post-mortem had revealed the cause of death. Under the new provision, if coroners are provided with new evidence at any point in the course of investigation that reveals the cause of death, such as a police report or new medical evidence, then the coroner will have discretion to discontinue the investigation.
The broadening of circumstances where coroners can discontinue an investigation has several potential benefits: it saves time and resources for coroners, reduces costs by preventing an unnecessary investigation from proceeding to hearing, and prevents the bereaved family from experiencing additional distress. More broadly, the time saved will allow for a greater number of investigations to be conducted. This is a welcome development considering the previous backlog of inquests, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Inquests in writing
The JRCA gives coroners a new power to conduct non-contentious inquests entirely in writing. Previously, all inquests, whether contentious or not, had to be conducted in person. Generally, where a death is non-contentious, the bereaved family are unlikely to wish to attend the inquest. This meant that coroners would regularly conduct hearings to an empty courtroom for no other reason than that it was required by statute. The removal of the requirement will, therefore, give coroners much needed capacity to focus on contentious and more complex inquests.
While the new provision enhances the coroner's discretionary powers, it should be noted that the family of the deceased, as an interested party to the inquest, will themselves still have the power to request a full hearing in person in the event of non-contentious death.
The JRCA also formalises the use of audio and video links at inquests. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, guidance required that the coroner and jury (where applicable) needed to be physically present when conducting hearings. The removal of this requirement now allows for hearings to be conducted in a wholly remote capacity. This not only brings coroner's courts more in line with the mainstream courts, but also facilitates the efficacy and speed of hearings. Furthermore, the use of audio and video links will contribute to the public effort to reduce the spread of Covid-19 by reducing the likelihood of physical exposure.
Osborne Clarke comment
The provisions of the JRCA came into force on 28 June. Stakeholders should, therefore, be aware of the broadened scope for inquests to be discontinued and also the potential for a coroner to declare that an inquest will be conducted entirely in writing. This will likely lead to an increased emphasis and importance being placed on inquest disclosure, written submissions, witness statements and other documents.
More broadly, these reforms will address the backlog of inquests in coroner's courts and save time and resources for coroners by reducing the need to conduct in-person hearings. Furthermore, the ability to discontinue investigations in cases where the cause of death is discovered early will prevent bereaved families from going through additional distress in the grieving process.
This article was produced with the assistance of Niall Shields, Trainee Solicitor and Molly Davies, Future Trainee.