Schedule 1 — Duty or power to suspend or resume investigations

Part of Coroners and Justice Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 12th November 2009.

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Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire 12:30 pm, 12th November 2009

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor has made a strong case for his view that the Lords amendment already goes far enough, but I am sorry to tell him that I still have doubts about that. The crucial thing about a coroner is that he is an independent judge who investigates and decides who a person was, whether they died, and if they did, why they died, or what they died of. That role goes back in our history to a time when this country was very troubled, and important people felt that they might be able to take the law into their own hands. It has been an important protection for our people, going back centuries.

It is clear from schedule 1 that we suspend coroners' investigations only in rare and important circumstances. If somebody is charged with murder, the coroner's investigation will be suspended so that there can be a fair criminal trial. There are also other limited circumstances in which that would happen. It has been a principle for a very long time that one does not suspend a coroner's investigation except in very important circumstances. We are facing threats of terrorism, which can lead to deaths, and a war in Afghanistan, which can lead to deaths, and sometimes the circumstances of those deaths may be of embarrassment to the Government and to the powers that be. From the very beginning, therefore, the worry with the Bill has been that in those circumstances, there might be a desire for a secret process that is not as open as a coroner's inquest. It is therefore good that we have been able to debate the issue over a period to try to reach the point where a coroner's investigation cannot be stopped by ministerial fiat.

That concern has boiled down to the situation before us, where it is accepted that there might be an inquiry-rather than an inquest-and, therefore, a suspension, whereby the investigation might need to be taken in private. The only example that I can think of is when something like intercept evidence is involved, and I think that Mr. Dismore takes the same view.

That brings us to the amendments. The lock, which the Lord Chancellor has proposed, is that it would be for the Lord Chancellor to decide whether to suspend the inquest and have an inquiry; a senior judge would then be appointed as chairman of the inquiry; but the Lord Chief Justice would be able to indicate that he did not want to approve the appointment of that judge. As the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor has said, that could mean any judge, but the solution that my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Grieve suggests in amendment (a) is a far less cumbersome mechanism. Proposed new paragraph 1(1)(d) of schedule 1 would make it clear from the outset that the Lord Chief Justice had to give approval not just to the appointment of that judge, but to the suspension of the inquest. That is a different question.

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