A massive defeat for the Conservative Coalition – on the abolition of the Chief Coroner

The Conservative Coalition came under sustained fire from all sides in the House of Lords this afternoon over the proposal to abolish the role of the Chief Coroner – a proposal tucked away in the Public Bodies Bill.

My contribution, in support of an amendment from Baroness Finlay of Llandaff that had the effect of removing the proposal to abolish the role from the Bill, was as follows:

“My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the advisory panel on deaths in custody. That is relevant because the panel made recommendations on the back of the legislation that created the role of the chief coroner that were endorsed by the ministerial board on deaths in custody.

There are a number of reasons why Amendment 26 should be supported. The first relates to process. Whereas the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act involved a very long process in this House that included a considerable period of debate on what was a major piece of legislation, the Public Bodies Bill seeks to overturn by means of what is almost a footnote—one line in Schedule 1—all the work that was done in both Houses, which considered the issues in great detail. In addition, the Coroners and Justice Act was regarded by many people as long overdue. The process point is whether it is right and proper that such a major piece of legislation should be dismembered by a single line in the Bill.

The second process point is that we have had no adequate explanation of why the Government regard the proposed abolition as being able to produce significant savings. I am aware that every death in custody costs the taxpayer, on average, £500,000 or so for the investigation process and all that goes with it. A good and effective coronial service that picks up the lessons from deaths in custody could easily save substantial sums of money. One of the problems, on which my panel made recommendations about the role of the chief coroner, is the need to draw out at national level the material that emerges from narrative verdicts and from Rule 43 reports and to identify the best practice that emerges from those.

Another reason why my panel felt that the role of the chief coroner is important is—as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has just referred to—the impact that delays can have on families. One issue that concerns me and the panel that I chair is the very long period that can elapse before a proper hearing or inquest is held into the deaths of people who die while in the custody of the state. Sometimes there are good reasons for such delays, but sometimes the reasons are extremely obscure. There is certainly a problem in the allocation of work among coroners. The appointment of a chief coroner provided the possibility of being able to allocate work more rationally by perhaps creating specialist coroners who could look in detail at particular types of death and thereby build up a body of experience. The chief coroner could also draw attention, where necessary, to the fact that some coroners might be inadequately resourced by local authorities, which is the mechanism by which coroners are funded.

Picking up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the charter for bereaved people, I understand that the coalition Government have said that they wish to make the charter even stronger. However, the key point about the charter is that, if a bereaved person feels that their charter rights have not been met, there is a mechanism or route that they can go to, which involves the chief coroner. Exactly how will that mechanism be strengthened in future?

We are assured that, by some magical process, civil servants in the Ministry of Justice will be able to fulfil the role that will now not be fulfilled by the chief coroner. How exactly will that be done? I hope that, when the Minister responds, he will give us chapter and verse on how that will happen. Like all other government departments, central administration in the Ministry of Justice is being reduced by 20, 30 or 40 per cent. Perhaps some of these things could have been done by Ministry of Justice civil servants before those reductions, but given that that has not happened, why should we believe that somehow, with reduced resource in future, the benefits that would have accrued from a chief coroner will magically be delivered from within the Ministry of Justice? The noble Baroness’s amendment deserves the support of the House.”

There were powerful contributions from Viscount Slim:

“After any military action, it is a fairly awesome job—not a pleasant job and a very moving job—to gather one’s dead who have made the supreme and final sacrifice for King or Queen and country. They are dead. Dead is dead. Why then does it take one, two, three or more years to declare such a person, man or woman, officially dead? What about the grieving widow? What about the mother? What about the family waiting, not really understanding what a coroner’s inquest is, not being told, not being supported, not being moved to the inquest, not being paid for, not being looked after? That is one of the reasons why we need a chief coroner.

We need a leader in this outfit somewhere. We need someone who can administer, speed the process and make certain that everything is done more speedily and correctly. The chief coroner must be rather special. He must be a leader and an administrator. I do not mind whether he is a judge or not, but he must be competent. He must grip these coroners who are scattered around the country, a little lethargic and not necessarily working every day of the week. There needs to be a little bit of cohesion here. The chief coroner is vital.

Is an unproven, newly constituted Ministry of Justice good enough to do this? I do not think so. Who is the leader who will emerge from this legal morass? I wonder. I do not think that this is possible. Surely the Government have heard enough today to realise that they are on the wrong track and that there has to be a chief coroner.”

And from Baroness Butler-Schloss:

“My Lords, I declare an interest as a former assistant deputy coroner—something that I did for as short a period as I could. Coroners, like judges and judicial officers, sit alone and quite often become isolated. If they always sit in the same place, there is a danger that their arrangements will not be consistent with those of adjoining coroners or indeed of coroners in other parts of the country.

Coroners receive a certain amount of training, as did I. As far as it went, it was good but it was not sufficient. The advantage for judges and judicial officers is that not only do they have the Judicial Studies Board but, infinitely more important, at the top of the ladder is the Lord Chief Justice, and under him are senior judges who keep the standards up and give very important guidance. That is absolutely essential. The purpose of the chief coroner and the deputies beneath him or her is to give important guidance to individual coroners right around the country who sit on their own and are isolated, and to offer guidance and keep the standards up, as the standards also vary. Losing a post not yet filled would leave coroners to carry on without that necessary help. It would also deny the public a sufficiently good coronial system.

In answer to a Question asked at Question Time some weeks ago, the Minister said that the guidance would be given by the Ministry of Justice. Like judicial officers and indeed judges, coroners are independent, and it is just not good enough for the Ministry of Justice to offer guidance to those who sit in a judicial or semi-judicial capacity. It just will not do. The Minister clearly did not understand—or perhaps, rather more importantly, the Ministry of Justice did not understand—that the sort of guidance it would give would not be good enough. Judges would not accept it, and why on earth should coroners accept it when it is possible to have a much better system? It is clear to me that the roles of chief coroner and the deputy coroners and so on are essential, as set out so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and that this amendment absolutely deserves to be carried.”

A number of Tories and Liberal Democrats also indicated their dissent with the Conservative Coalition’s proposals (although most abstained rather than voted against the Government).  However, the vast majority of the cross-benchers voted for the amendment and in the event the Government was defeated by 277 votes to 165.

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