Coroners (Suspension of Requirement for Jury at Inquest: Coronavirus) Regulations 2024 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 24 May 2024.

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Lord Bellamy:

Moved by Lord Bellamy

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 2 May be approved.

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, this instrument is an important part of the Government’s ongoing support for coroners’ services in their continuing recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It extends for a further two years the disapplication of the statutory requirement for any inquest into a death involving Covid-19 to be held with a jury.

As noble Lords will recall, the Coronavirus Act 2020 removed the requirement for juries in coroner cases in many—indeed, at the time almost all—circumstances, following which the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 provided that juries should not automatically have to be empanelled in cases involving a Covid-19 death. That provision was extendable, and the present regulations seek to extend that exception for a further two years.

I have three points to make. First, it is entirely open to any coroner to empanel a jury if he thinks fit; it does not prevent there being a jury but simply gives the coroner discretion, rather than automatically having to have a jury. Secondly, there is, as I have just said, a sunset provision as the extension is limited to two years. Thirdly, this measure helps reduce the delays that I am sorry to say are still besetting coroner services and the system of coronial inquests. I understand, on the basis of a comment from the senior coroner in the north-west of England, that for each day of a listing for an inquest without a jury, it takes a week’s listing with a jury. So, to empanel a jury automatically in all these cases, irrespective of whether you need a jury, is, in the Government’s view, somewhat excessive provided that the coroner also always has the power to empanel a jury if he wishes to.

The Government are concerned about the impact of inquest backlogs, particularly on bereaved families, and feel that this measure, if the House agrees it, will support coroners in their continuing efforts to reduce those backlogs and promote the Government’s objective of putting the bereaved at the heart of the coronial process. Of course, in high-profile cases it always remains possible and open to the coroner to empanel a jury. For those reasons, I commend the regulations to the House.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I would like to ask the Minister one question in relation to something he just said about the families and the fact that coroners will have discretion. If, for whatever reason, a family wishes a coroner’s procedure to proceed with a jury, what weight would a coroner place upon that in deciding in his or her discretion whether to empanel one?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I cannot answer for individual coroners, but I would venture to suppose that such a circumstance would have great weight with most coroners.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Conservative

My Lords, I welcome these regulations. It is very important that backlogs are reduced. It is very damaging to the families and, very often, to the witnesses who may have been involved in a very serious matter that has caused them grief even if they are not a direct victim. The sooner these things are resolved, the better. It is important also that, where a jury is properly required, it is not passed to one side simply for administrative convenience.

I also take this opportunity to remind the House that, as of this date, coroners are still the responsibility of local authorities. That does not lead to efficiency or proper funding and resources. I hope that it will not be too long, as senior coroners in the past have urged, before the coronial system is put on a proper national basis within the courts service.

Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative

My Lords, I too welcome these regulations. I am very pleased to hear that measures are being taken to try to clear the backlogs and that the bereaved are put at the heart of the coronial cases. However, I would like to ask my noble friend a question. I have heard that, in some cases, where there have been long backlogs and families have been waiting for an inquest, unable to move forward. They have then been told that the inquest is not being held in person; it will be done on paper. I ask that the wishes of families are taken into account very seriously.

One person who contacted me about this was desperately upset. She had been waiting for an inquest and hoped that she would get answers to some of the questions she had about why her mother had one minute been coming home from hospital and, the next minute, was on an end-of-life pathway due to having picked up coronavirus. She felt that, having waited for two years and having really agonised about this, she was being brushed aside because it was being put into a paper inquest.

So I welcome these regulations, because clearly the shortest time possible between a death and an inquest is desirable. As my noble friend Lord Sandhurst said, for some of the witnesses as well it is better to close these things. However, where there have been long waits, to suddenly hear there will be a paper inquest, which the person who contacted me would not be able to be party to except to hear the results, is far from satisfactory.

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

My Lords, we support this SI. We thank the noble and learned Lord for everything he has said and recognise the point he made that the coroner will still have discretion, rather than there being a requirement to empanel a jury for hearings.

I want to make a slightly different point to the other noble Lords. Everyone has quite rightly said how backlogs affect families of those involved; that, of course, is true. But there is another, positive reason for continuing with the current arrangements, albeit on a temporary basis, and that is the quality of the decision-making itself. For any witnesses who are having to wait longer, there will inevitably be a degradation in their memory. For that reason—not just the very laudable reason of trying to reduce difficulties for families—the outcomes will be better through reducing the whole coronial process of reviewing these decisions.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I understand that guidance from the Chief Coroner explains that great weight should be given in particular to the wishes of the family. I accept, as others have said, that there are very serious delays in the coronial system. The example given by the noble Baroness sounds like a highly regrettable situation and I will ask my officials to look further into it.

I venture to say that the coronial system, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, has just observed, is ripe for a fairly thorough review. This division between local authority responsibility and judicial responsibility is probably not the most efficient or sensible arrangement. That is something we should do, both from the point of view of families going through a very traumatic situation of bereavement—it is very serious when things such as those mentioned by the noble Baroness happen. The point about witnesses is also a very fair and important one. This is ongoing work to tackle the delays in the coronial system and its general efficiency.

Motion agreed.