Amendment 19

Judicial Review and Courts Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 31st March 2022.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar:

Moved by Lord Wolfson of Tredegar

19: Clause 39, page 53, line 27, leave out “follows” and insert “set out in subsections (2) and (3)”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on the amendment at page 53, line 33 in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I am sorry but one of the problems of doing this online is that, when the system freezes, you do not have any notes.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Put not your trust in tablets.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Keep taking the tablets, my Lords. When we last debated these clauses, a number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, invited and urged me to meet Inquest. I am grateful for that urging, because I had a very productive and informative discussion with it last week on the measures in the Bill and some wider measures. In fact, Justice also attended the meeting. While it is fair to say that there are differences of opinion between us, I assured them that the Government’s priority remains to make certain that the bereaved are at the centre of the coronial process. The measures in the Bill support this priority. We seek to reduce unnecessary procedures in the coroners’ courts and that will, in turn, reduce delays in the inquest process, and reduce again the distress to bereaved families.

The amendments in my name in this group are minor and technical. They are consequential on Clause 39, which allows a coroner to discontinue an investigation should the cause of death “become clear”, and they remove some obsolete references to post-mortems from existing legislation.

Those are the government amendments. However, I am conscious that the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans have other, more substantive amendments in this group. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will speak on the noble Baroness’s behalf. I will let them propose their amendments before I respond to them.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, Amendment 21 would ensure that certain safeguards were met before a coroner could discontinue an investigation into a death. Family members and personal representatives of the deceased must be provided with a coroner’s provisional reasons for considering that the investigation should be discontinued, helping to ensure that family members make an informed decision as to whether to consent to the discontinuation.

Amendment 22 would provide that the Lord Chancellor should establish an appeal process for families who disagree with a decision to discontinue an investigation. Amendment 23 would ensure that inquests were not held without a hearing if that was against the wishes of the deceased’s family. Amendment 24 would ensure that certain safeguards were met before a remote inquest hearing is held and that interested persons were provided with the reasons why a remote hearing is to be held. I am glad that the Minister met Inquest and Justice. The amendments, which are in the name of my noble friend Lady Chapman, would address the various perceived shortcomings within the coronial system. I look forward to the Minister’s answer to them.

Amendment 28 would allow coroners to record risk factors relevant in a death by suicide and require the Secretary of State to issue guidance on the risk factors that the coroner must consider and the form in which they are recorded. The right reverend Prelate will speak to his amendment in due course. It is part of his attritional campaign for, often, young men who commit suicide because of gambling habits. I support his intention.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

My Lords, I rise to speak briefly to Amendment 28 standing in my name. I would be grateful if the House would indulge me just for a few minutes. As I explained last week when I was presenting my Private Member’s Bill, Public Health England pointed out that, in just one year, there were 409 suicides related to problem gambling. Your Lordships will be aware that the largest lobby group here in the House is Peers for Gambling Reform. Whenever we have tried to deal with this, one thing we keep hearing back is that we simply do not have the statistics or the data on the various causes of suicide. For some while, I have been trying in every way I can to get at least some data to help us with this so that we can devise strategies to reduce the terrible burden on families who have lost a young person.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is right that most of those who have taken their lives are young men, but it is now becoming clear that this is quite a significant problem also among younger women. It is partly because the ubiquitous gambling adverts are now spreading into women’s magazines and so on—it is just all over the place.

I shall be brief, because the Minister addressed some of the concerns in responding to my Private Member’s Bill, the Coroners (Determination of Suicide) Bill, last Friday, but there are some important differences in this amendment, which is my attempt to respond to points that the Minister made. Unlike my Bill, the amendment would permit, but not require, coroners to record factors relevant in a death by suicide. Other differences between the amendment and the original Bill include provisions to ensure that the jury would no longer have any say in the consideration and recording of relevant factors and that the consideration and recording of factors by the coroner would now occur outside the inquest process and not disrupt the traditional remit of an inquest to determine how, what, when and where in relation to an unexplained death.

Finally, the amendment would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance on which factors relevant in a death by suicide could be considered and the form in which they would be recorded by a coroner. Strict data protection provisions are included to prevent the identity of the deceased being disclosed or deduced in any way.

The purpose of this amendment is to allow factors relevant in a death by suicide to be recorded in a standardised and safe way, looking at the comorbidities, for the purpose of collecting data that will contribute to a much better understanding of the factors that are driving suicides here in the UK.

It is interesting that, despite the reluctance of the Government to give way on anything on this matter, some coroners, locally, are already recording this data. I have here the sheet that they use, with all the different factors written down. I received this from one of the coroners in my diocese. They are already able to do this. The point is that it is already permitted—or at least there is no provision stopping it—but because it is just done locally, and at the choice of the coroner, there is a lack of central oversight on how and what is being recorded, and a lack of a central database to securely record the factors that underly death by suicide.

This amendment would enshrine in law what is already technically permitted, while providing a sensible framework to securely record these factors in a co-ordinated and standardised manner across separate coronial jurisdictions, and to allow for this data to be centrally recorded and then published for research purposes without compromising the identity of any of the deceased. Personally, I think this is a sensible approach. It does not compel coroners to record these factors and it occurs outside of the inquest process, with no input for the jury.

I know that the Minister has concerns about mandating coroners and interfering with the inquest process. However, since the amendment does neither of those things, I hope that he will address the points I have just made to see whether this amendment really does create a simple framework for something that is already allowable.

What matters—I am sure that the Minister will agree—is that we find mechanisms to produce good-quality data on the factors driving suicides so that we can try to devise strategies to reduce the number of suicides. This amendment contributes to that goal. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 4:15 pm, 31st March 2022

My Lords, I want to say how much I support the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Albans in his campaign against gambling. He is energetic in that cause, and I very much respect him for it. He comes up against the nature of inquests, hallowed over many years, which are restricted to inquiring who, where and when. They do not even include the question that is emblazoned upon my family crest: ar bwy mae’r bai—“Who can we blame?”

When we leave this building, we should look at Westminster Abbey and realise that it was not built at the time that the procedures of inquests were begun. The coroner remains in charge of his inquest. He may discontinue, he may decide the inquest on the papers, or he may utilise audio or visual means to do so—all he has to do is notify interested parties that the coroner is satisfied; those are the statutory words. He does not have to give reasons. In particular, he does not have to have the consent of the family members—those who are bereaved and for whom an inquest is a most important matter in their lives. I support the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, which, very sensibly, require the consent of interested persons to the coroner making his decisions in the areas that I referred to, and require him to give reasons for those decisions. I leave it to others to expand.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I shall respond to the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman. Amendments 21, 22, 23 and 24 all seek to introduce further conditions into Clauses 39, 40 and 41 relating to coroners’ courts. The Government’s position on these amendments is that, while we understand and sympathise with the intention behind them, we do not consider them necessary.

As I said in Committee, I have concerns about amendments that would cut across the independence of coroners. As the House has just heard, they are a very ancient form of office, but they are a judicial office. How coroners conduct inquests and investigations is a matter—properly, I would say—solely for them. We do not want to introduce concepts such as consent from other parties which would cut across or fetter their judicial discretion.

For example, Amendment 21 seeks to require the coroner to provide interested persons with a provisional reason for discontinuing an investigation, enabling the interested persons to make an informed decision on whether to consent to the discontinuance. We would not expect judges or other tribunals to seek consent from others, especially from people who are not actually party to the proceedings, before taking this sort of decision and I suggest that we should afford coroners, as judicial officeholders, the same constitutional courtesy.

Moreover, necessary safeguards are already in place. Section 4(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is clear on instances where a coroner may not discontinue an investigation, including violent or unnatural deaths, or deaths in custody or other state detention. They would also not be able to discontinue investigations which raise ECHR Article 2 considerations, even if the death is suspected to be from natural causes. Over and above that, Section 4(4) of the Act provides that where a coroner discontinues an investigation into a death, they must, if requested to do so in writing by an interested person, provide a written explanation as to why the investigation has been discontinued. We think that is a sufficient mechanism for interested persons to request an explanation for a discontinuance.

Amendment 22 seeks to provide a mechanism to challenge a coroner’s decision to discontinue. Again, routes are already in place. The challenge can be made by way of judicial review or, sometimes, through application to the High Court with the authority of the Attorney-General.

Giving coroners the flexibility to discontinue an investigation where there is clear evidence that the cause of death is natural eliminates the need for an unnecessary investigation and reduces distress for the bereaved, as well as freeing up resources to be deployed on more complex cases. Coroners will of course work sensitively with bereaved families and take their views into consideration. As I said in Committee, I would expect the Chief Coroner to provide guidance for coroners to accompany any changes in the law, to make sure that practice is consistent across coroner areas.

Amendment 23 would require the coroner to seek consent from interested persons before making a decision on whether to hold an inquest without a hearing. The same point on judicial independence applies. Clause 40 is designed to give coroners flexibility to determine when an inquest can be held without a hearing. It might be used where a family have indicated that they have no wish to attend the inquest, for example, or in cases where the coroner has no concerns as to the cause of death. Of course, we would expect coroners to use their discretion judiciously and judicially when applying this provision.

All these measures are designed to support the drive to remove unnecessary procedures from the coroners’ courts. That will help them in delivering recovery plans as they tackle the post-pandemic backlog of inquest cases.

Amendment 24, similarly, deals with remote hearings. The House may be aware that in fact, coroners’ courts have always been able to conduct virtual hearings, but there has been one proviso: that the coroner and jury—if there is one, because often there is not—must be present in the courtroom. That means that under the current law, everyone participating in an inquest can be remote except the coroner, who has to be physically present in a courtroom with nobody else there at all. I suggest that that is somewhat odd, and this provision enables all participants, including the coroner and any inquest jury, to participate remotely, and it brings coroners’ courts in line with other courts and tribunals.

I should add, however, for clarity that where an inquest jury is participating remotely, all members of the jury—which can be from seven to 11 people—must be physically present in the same place and at the same time. They cannot participate remotely from their individual front rooms, for example. We saw during the pandemic how remote hearings ensured that the wheels of justice kept turning, and we anticipate that remote hearings can continue to play a very useful role in coroners’ courts.

The amendment would also out in primary legislation the requirement for coroners to obtain consent before making a decision on whether to conduct an inquest hearing remotely. As to that, my same point about judicial independence applies.

For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, speaking for the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, not to press those amendments.

I turn finally to Amendment 28, tabled by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. He is absolutely right: we debated this only a few days ago, as matters have turned out. I appreciate that this is, as we have heard, somewhat of an attritional campaign, and he has moved the focus of the amendment slightly to deal with some of the points I made last week, and for that I am very grateful. Of course, we recognise the importance of collating quality information on the circumstances which lead to suicide, including gambling-related factors, but we think that the amendment would not deliver that outcome.

As I think I said last Friday, current legislation focuses the coroner on the question of who the deceased was and when, where and how they died, not why they died. That often strays into determining liability, which Section 5(3) of the 2009 Act expressly forbids. I appreciate that, as the right reverend Prelate informed us, some coroners have started to collate that information, but that is really one of the problems. We are very concerned that information collated in a somewhat haphazard manner would not be a sufficiently robust basis on which to base government policy. Furthermore, even if all coroners were asked to do it, we must recognise that coroners get information from a range of sources: family, partners, friends, police, et cetera. All those sources might give the coroner differing motivating factors which could have led to the suicide.

I repeat what I said on Friday: we will be publishing a White Paper in the coming weeks on the Gambling Act review, following the debate on the tragic death of Jack Ritchie, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned last week. We are committed to understanding the circumstances which lead to self-harm and suicide, including gambling addiction. We have commissioned the University of Sheffield to do some work in this area, and the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has likewise committed to work with government departments and other stakeholders to improve data in this area.

I gave some more information last Friday about what the Government are doing in this area. I will not detain the House by repeating it, but I assure the right reverend Prelate that we are treating the issue with importance. However, we do not, respectfully, think that this amendment is the right way to deal with it. I therefore urge him not to press his amendments. I was going to say that I am very happy to continue the conversation, but I anticipate that this conversation will be continuing, whether I am happy to or not. In any event, I look forward to continuing it with the right reverend Prelate.

Amendment 19 agreed.