Harold Macmillan is famously said to have observed that:
“There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers”.
To this list should perhaps be added the Royal British Legion.
The Coroners and Justice Act (CJA) 2009 contained legislation to reform the process of death investigation and certification in England and Wales to deal with the shortcomings of single doctor death certification identified in the Shipman Inquiries. It also created the new office of Chief Coroner (CC).
In October 2010, Jonathan Djanogly, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice announced that some of the provisions of the CJA 2009 would not be implemented. These included the office of CC.
Following widespread public criticism, including a message to all members of parliament from the Royal British Legion which appeared prominently in a number of national newspapers, the government relented.
Kenneth Clarke, then the Justice Secretary, announced that he had “listened and reflected on the concerns” and the office of CC would be created after all.
In May 2012 the Lord Chief Justice in consultation with the Lord Chancellor appointed Judge Peter Thornton Q.C. as the first CC of England and Wales.
On 1 July 2014 the CC presented to the Lord Chancellor his first annual report which can be downloaded free of charge from the government’s website:
The report covers the period from 25 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 and contains information which will be of interest and help to all lawyers doing coronial work. In particular the report includes sections on:
- The training of and the guidance now provided to coroners.
- The appointment of coroners and the merging of certain coroner areas.
- Investigation and inquest processes.
- Delays in investigations.
- Prevention of future death reports.
As the report recognises much work still needs to be done. But the CC can take credit for the fact that more hearings are now held in public, all hearings are recorded, most inquests are or soon will be held within six months and there is now better and earlier disclosure to interested parties.
Currently in England and Wales there are 99 separate coroner areas. We await with interest next year’s report to see if the CC’s stated intention to reduce these to about 75 areas, each being an appropriate size in terms of numbers of deaths reported geographically and special work - prisons, major hospitals, mental health institutions and airports – will result in further improvements to the coronial service overall.