Those of you who have any regular involvement in or contact with the coronial process will no doubt have shared my sinking feeling when it was announced during the bonfire of the quangos that the office of Chief Coroner was not going to be implemented. I was surprised and pleased to see that yesterday Ken Clarke announced a u-turn on this issue, although in limited form.
The background to this development is that the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 provided for the appointment of a Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroner. The purpose of these roles was to provide national leadership for the coronial system in England and Wales, with aims to improve standards. The Chief Coroner was also intended to provide a new route of appeal from inquests, removing the cumbersome and expensive requirement to judicially review decisions, however small.
In October 2010 the government announced that, in the current economic climate, plans to implement the office of Chief Coroner would not proceed. The government proposed to abolish the office of the Chief Coroner and to transfer some of the Chief Coroner’s functions to alternative bodies. The Public Bodies Bill was the means by which it was intended that the office would be abolished, although the provision enacting this power was defeated in the House of Lords in December 2010. Thereafter the plan became not to abolish the office, but to provide that the functions could be transferred elsewhere.
The plan not to enact the office of Chief Coroner has been very unpopular and heavy opposition has been mounted by charities such as the Royal British Legion.
Yesterday Mr Clarke said in a statement: "Over recent months I have listened to and reflected on the concerns raised across Parliament, by families and by other groups, including the Royal British Legion, that a single figure needs to be responsible for the coroner system.
"I am prepared to have one last try to meet those arguments and so have taken the decision to implement the office of the chief coroner.
"The existing mechanisms for challenging a coroner's decision will remain in place and will avoid the need for expensive new appeal rights. The new post will be focused on working to deliver the reform to coroners' services that we all want to see and which I previously argued should be delivered by the Lord Chief Justice and myself.
"Everyone is agreed that the priority is raising the standards of coroners' inquiries and inquests to ensure that bereaved families are satisfied with the whole process.
"I am therefore giving the chief coroner the full range of powers to drive up standards, including coroner training, as well as setting minimum standards of service through the new Charter."
So... partial good news then. The central oversight of the coronial system that is so desperately needed will be implemented. Unfortunately however, we are stuck with JR for the foreseeable future as the route of appeal against controversial decisions.