Clause 39 - Use of audio or video links at inquests

Judicial Review and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 18th November 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:15 pm, 18th November 2021

I beg to move amendment 74, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2B) Coroner rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must not allow the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by sound only.”

The purpose of this amendment is to prevent an inquest from being conducted by telephone or other means which are audio only.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Conservative, Romford

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 75, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2C) Coroner rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must provide for all interested persons to have to give their agreement to the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images.”

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the agreement of families is secured before an inquest is conducted remotely.

Amendment 76, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2D) Coroners rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must specify that, other than for any pre-inquest hearing, such a hearing, may only be held if—

(a) all interested persons known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act 2009 consent to such a hearing,

(b) the coroner is satisfied, and continues to be satisfied until the conclusion of any such hearing, that such a hearing is in the interests of justice, considering all the circumstances of the case,

(c) the coroner has considered the likely complexity of the inquest, and

(d) the coroner has considered the ability of interested persons known to the coroner to engage effectively with the hearing by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images.”

This amendment would ensure that certain safeguards are met before a remote inquest hearing is held.

Amendment 77, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2E) Coroners rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must require coroners to set out to all interested persons the reasons for why such a hearing, other than for any pre-inquest hearing, is to be held—

(a) at the conclusion of any pre-inquest hearing where any such hearing is ordered, if applicable, and

(b) in writing as soon as practicable after a decision has been taken for such a hearing to be held and prior to the commencement of the hearing.”

This amendment would ensure that interested persons are provided with the reasons for any remote inquest hearings.

Amendment 78, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2F) Coroners rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must provide for such hearings to comply with, and be subject to, Rule 11 of The Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 (Inquest hearings to be held in public).”

This amendment would ensure that remote inquest hearings and pre-inquest hearings are still held in a manner accessible to the public.

Amendment 79, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(4) Before this Clause may be commenced, the Lord Chancellor must—

(a) commission an independent review, including a consultation, of the potential impact of the conduct of inquest hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic

(b) lay before Parliament the report and findings of such independent review, and

(c) provide a response explaining whether and how such issues which have been identified would be mitigated.”

This amendment would require a review, including a consultation, of the potential impact of remote inquest hearings before Clause 39 comes into effect.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

The Committee will see that we have a number of concerns about the way in which the amendment is presented, but not about the principle. We covered the role of technology and so forth in a previous part of the Bill, but we repeat some of those concerns and we have additional concerns in relation to the coronial process.

Clause 39 would enable remote attendance at inquest hearings by amending the coroners rules to allow provision for the conduct of hearings either wholly or partly by way of electronic sounds or images. Proposed new subsection (2A) sets out a provision to allow members of the jury to take part in a hearing virtually. It clarifies the fact that all members of the jury must take part in the same way and from the same place. There is much to be said for support measures to make pre-inquest reviews more readily available remotely, and we have seen this working well in many instances. In some cases, it is true that remote inquest hearings will be appropriate and some families have welcomed them during the covid-19 period.

There can be additional benefits of remote hearings in facilitating wider participation for public and media access, but only if arranged in a way that ensures that is established. Given the way in which the clause is drafted, I have significant concerns about accessibility, transparency, participation and open justice with remote hearings.

Amendment 74 does not dispute the fact that there is a place for remote hearings, either partly or in full, but I argue that it would be inappropriate for an inquest to be conducted by audio only. It can be vital to see a witness who is being questioned during the inquest; otherwise it is impossible to know whether that person is being prompted on what to say by someone else, for example. Furthermore, if a hearing is audio only, neither the coroner nor anyone else will be able to get a sense of the body language of the witness, which could help to establish credibility. The amendment would prevent an inquest from being conducted by telephone or by other means that are audio only.

Inquests can help to provide closure for grieving families and, according to families who have been through this experience, part of that closure can be achieved by physically being in court. It is the opposite point to the one that the Minister made on families who may find it more comfortable not to be in court for various reasons. Every case and every family is different, but being in court allows families to be supported by their legal representatives not just professionally but emotionally. That could be difficult if they are in different locations. Some families may not have internet access, or an internet connection that is good enough to allow them to take part in an online hearing. Amendment 75 will ensure that those families are not excluded from an inquest by ensuring that their agreement is secured before one is conducted remotely.

The Government’s rationale for clause 39—that it would bring inquests to

“the same position as civil courts”— fails to recognise the specific nature of inquests, which often differ from mainstream courts and tribunals because of the highly sensitive and distressing nature of the issues addressed and their potential complexity, especially for state-related deaths. Whether remote inquests are appropriate depends on a case’s circumstances: its facts, complexity and attendees, and their ability to participate electronically in the proceedings. The introduction of remote inquest hearings without considering the needs and wishes of bereaved families, who already face many barriers to effective participation in the inquest process, is extremely concerning.

As with any remote hearing, myriad issues, including health conditions and disabilities, may make it difficult for individuals to follow or engage with a virtual hearing. Those same issues may make it difficult for them to explain to the coroner why they would prefer to attend in person. Furthermore, inquests can be highly distressing and re-traumatising for bereaved family members. The Government state that remote hearings will reduce the additional distress of the inquest process for bereaved families; however, it is unclear what evidence there is for that statement.

It is possible that some families may welcome a remote hearing, including the practical benefit that it can provide for some participants; however, it is very possible that requiring bereaved families to attend inquests remotely from their own home, which may make it more difficult to detach the inquest from their personal lives, will risk increasing unnecessarily the distress for bereaved families. In addition, bereaved families who attend from home risk not having the same level of support, including vital in-person support from charities such as the Coroners’ Courts Support Service. They will also be required to navigate the additional technological challenges that remote hearings can pose.

Inquests play an important role in allowing bereaved families to understand the circumstances around their family member’s death; however, if family members have difficulty engaging with the inquest remotely, that may disconnect families and key witnesses from this important process. Given the highly personal and distressing nature of inquests, it may be difficult for family members to put forward arguments and explanations to a coroner of why they do not want a remote hearing, especially since many bereaved family members do not have access to legal advice and representation, and may be faced with competing arguments from other interested persons. A remote inquest hearing should occur only if family members have consented to it. To help to mitigate those risks, clause 39 could be amended to ensure that certain safeguards are met before a remote inquest hearing is held.

Turning to amendment 77, it is important that interested persons, including bereaved family members, are provided with the reasons why an inquest hearing is to be held remotely. That helps to ensure that, if necessary, they have a basis on which to contest a decision to hold an inquest remotely. It is crucial that bereaved family members are engaged throughout the inquest process and provided with regular updates on what decisions are being made by the coroner and why. Without this communication, bereaved families, who often find the inquest process complex and alienating, risk experiencing further alienation, confusion and distress.

“Chief Coroner’s Guidance No. 38”, on remote participation in coronial proceedings, recognises that need, specifying that where coroners order a partially remote hearing, they should set out their reasons to interested persons at the conclusion of any pre-inquest review or in writing, by letter or email. It is important that this important step is not misplaced by clause 39. Amendment 77 would ensure that interested persons are provided with the reasons for any remote inquest hearing.

Turning to amendment 78, hearings in public are a central and cardinal feature of the coronial system, and there is an obviously public interest in ensuring transparency and openness. Since the beginning of the pandemic, practice with regard to the ways in which inquests are held has become extremely variable. Coroners have been sitting in court throughout the pandemic, because pre-inquest reviews and inquest hearings must be held in public. The current variation in wider access relates directly to the availability of premises and the very different approaches taken by different coroners. This has meant that families face extremely different experiences.

The same relates to access for journalists and other members of the public, who have at times been denied remote access to hearings on various grounds. Remote hearings have a negative impact on access for the wider public and media, as shown in a recent survey of journalists’ experiences of remote coroners’ courts during the covid-19 pandemic. The survey highlighted the difficulties that journalists had experienced in gaining access to remote inquest hearings and the technical difficulties faced.

The Bill is unclear on the precise circumstances in which inquests would sit remotely and provides no stipulations on the way in which interested persons and the wider public should be able to access hearings. As a result, there is a risk that these measures will crystallise the gradual process towards reduced access, rather than being motivated by the opportunities of new technologies to increase it. That would row back on the important principle outlined by the Chief Coroner:

“In public means not just open to the public but arranged in such a way that a member of the public can drop in to see how an inquest is conducted.”

It would appear that clause 39 amends section 45 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to allow coroners more generally to attend hearings remotely. That must be clarified. The proposed new section does not say explicitly that coroners can attend remotely from outside court, or that they can attend remotely from outside court as long as the hearing is still held in public. That may be appropriate where an inquest is set to take place otherwise remotely with the family’s consent, but we have concerns about where that is not the case.

Public hearings are a fundamental element of the coronial system, ensuring that there is public accountability, investigation and explanation where an individual has died. There must be public access to hearings and, as I have said, although we recognise that in some circumstances a remote hearing can increase availability for members of the public and media to attend the inquest, we are concerned that the Bill does not provide any assurance that continued public access to inquests will not be limited in a remote setting.

Clause 39 should therefore be amended to ensure that remote inquest hearings, including pre-inquest reviews, continue to comply with rule 11 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, which requires hearings to be held in public. Amendment 78 would ensure that remote inquest hearings and pre-inquest hearings are still held in a manner that is accessible to the public.

Turning to amendment 79, I can support measures to conduct pre-inquest reviews remotely, as we have seen that working well in many instances. I note that many organisations that support the legal profession have said the same. The Bar Council said in its brief: “In line with our tradition regarding criminal trials, we are in favour of a presumption that proceedings for a jury are conducted in a room in which key interested persons are able to be physically present, and in which the coroner also sits.” However, there may be some sense in allowing pre-inquest review hearings to be conducted wholly remotely.

The Government state that remote hearings will reduce the “additional distress” of the inquest process for bereaved families—a claim for which they provide no concrete evidence. I have not been made aware of any evidence base in academic or other research to support this move. Indeed, it seems that remote or partly remote inquest hearings can, in fact, add to the distress of bereaved families. The only research into the experience of remote juries was a limited pilot study by Justice, which did not look specifically at inquests. As a result of the pilot, Justice concluded that whether remote inquests are appropriate is highly dependent on a case’s circumstances facts, complexities and attendees, and, vitally, on the impact of a remote hearing on access to justice for the bereaved family, who already face barriers to effective participation. Justice also concluded that vital safeguards for families, greater investment in technologies, and a pilot and evaluation are essential.

I share that view, because the Government must be asked to produce evidence to support these dramatic changes, or be asked to conduct further research and consultation with bereaved families on the implications of remote hearings, prior to enacting clause 39. The research must consider the positive and negative consequences of both fully and partially remote hearings and inquests. The review must include a consultation with bereaved families, to ensure that all concerns are fully considered and, where necessary, addressed. That would also highlight any gaps in the technology required for remote hearings and ensure the necessary investment.

The Government must outline the rationale for the precise implications of clause 39 and halt the introduction of these provisions, beyond those in pre-inquest reviews, until further research on the risks and benefits, as well as a public consultation, has been carried out. I therefore tabled amendment 79, which would require a review, including a consultation on the potential impact of remote inquest hearings, before clause 39 comes into effect.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings 2:30 pm, 18th November 2021

I am very grateful to you, Mr Rosindell. Your stewardship of our deliberations adds lustre to our proceedings.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has done the Committee a service by tabling the amendments. I do not think even his greatest fan would say that he is an exciting performer on the Committee, but he is certainly a diligent one. His diligence has allowed us to consider again the issue of court users who may be disadvantaged in some way by the drive for efficiency. There is a barely a sin that has not been committed in the name of efficiency somewhere and at some time, and it is vital, as the amendments make clear, that we move forward with a careful consideration of the interests of all court users.

I will not rehearse the arguments that the hon. Member for Hammersmith has made very well. The amendments would ensure that consent is at the heart of the process, which I think would be welcome. Furthermore, they would guarantee that coroners will take full account of the character of hearings, which again I think the whole Committee would welcome. Moreover, they are clear that consideration must be given to those involved in an inquest who might be put at a disadvantage by the drive towards communications of a new kind, as proposed in the Bill. I appreciate that the Minister wants to make the process as convenient as possible but, my goodness, in the name of convenience, are we as a House and a people to cast aside all the sensitivities and sensibilities that characterise the way we go about our proceedings in courts, in this place and elsewhere? It is important that we recognise that the cause of utility, justified by convenience, is not the only consideration in these matters.

As I have said before, the Minister has been extremely sensitive to this issue in his responses. It is a case that I have made repeatedly on behalf of disadvantaged people, particularly disabled people, who will come before courts with all the doubts, fears and apprehension that anyone would have, but with the added challenges of having to navigate a system without the advantages that most of the people in this Committee have. It is really important that in trying to make the system more cost-effective, convenient and efficient, we take full account of disadvantaged people’s interests and needs. That is my purpose in adding my voice to this debate.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which he has responded to the sensible arguments that have been made by Members on both sides of the Committee, and for his willingness to listen and take these things back and consider them further. I leave him simply with this thought. All my experience of life, which is not as long as it is going to be but is longer than some, is that as we journey through it, with all the joys and sorrows, all the trials and tribulations, all the triumphs and so on, it is perhaps the things that are inconvenient that take us closest to the sublime. I therefore long for the inconvenient life, and I hope that the Minister will recognise, in his very sensitive handling of these considerations, that convenience must not make us less caring.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for another very interesting contribution. His point that he is not as experienced as he will be in the future was an interesting chronological observation that it is impossible to dispute in any way, shape or form.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

That presupposes, of course, that I do not face an imminent decline or departure, which is not entirely impossible, although I am not hoping for it. I am glad that the Minister is wishing me a long and prosperous life—if that is what he is doing.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Not least because we do not want to have to put a further burden on the coroner’s office should any question marks be raised about the circumstances—[Laughter.] Or, indeed, a further by-election. These are not simple matters—and all that notwithstanding the fact that my right hon. Friend is a great man, who is bordering on a regional treasure if not yet a national one. The only point that I make is that, in many ways, in craving inconvenience, he has made an ode to traffic jams. There are many inconvenient things in life that I think all of us find a great displeasure.

Let me make a serious point about efficiency. I said on Second Reading that the streamlining of the courts is the thread that runs through the Bill. Almost every measure in it is, in one way or another, streamlining, and therefore about efficiency, but it is not efficiency for efficiency’s sake. If we take the measures to do with coroners, I very much regret that many cases are backlogged in the coroners’ courts, and inevitably they are the most serious cases—cases that will require inquests, possibly with a jury. We have to remember that that causes great distress for the families concerned. These efficiency measures will help us to reduce those backlogs so that we can deliver those cases in a more timely fashion, which I would argue is in the interests of supporting bereaved families and is therefore in itself compassionate.

By the same token, as I have said repeatedly throughout our consideration of the Bill, when one talks about the virtual sphere, measures such as remote participation and digitisation are not taken for the sake of it. They enable justice to happen in ways that it might not have done during the pandemic, for example. I accept my right hon. Friend’s point, but we have to remember that there is a very important reason why we are seeking to streamline these measures, and ultimately it is in the interests of our constituents.

Of course, if one is seeking to streamline and have efficiency—I have said this throughout, and I have agreed with the hon. Member for Hammersmith—one has to have safeguards in place. The amendments in this group all seek to provide additional safeguards for audio and video-link provisions in clause 39.

To be clear, clause 39 is intended to provide coroners with the flexibility to hold remote inquest hearings where all participants, including members of a jury, where applicable, participate remotely. During the pandemic, remote elements of inquests have worked well, with interested persons and witnesses attending virtually, so this is not unprecedented by any means. Other courts and tribunals have been holding wholly or partly remote hearings where participants have the option to participate remotely. The clause is intended to bring coroners’ courts in line with other jurisdictions. I would like to assure members of the Committee that we introduced the clause with bereaved families in mind. Giving coroners flexibility on how they hold their inquest hearings will ensure the timely hearing of cases and help to reduce unnecessary distress to families, not least by reducing delay.

Amendment 74 proposes to set out in primary legislation the requirement that remote hearings must not be conducted by audio only. The clause is intended to provide coroners with the flexibility to hold remote inquest hearings with the use of either audio or video links. It is important that coroners have the flexibility to conduct hearings by audio, as there may be occasions where that is the only means by which participation is possible—for example, if someone’s wi-fi is not strong enough for a video link. We have all been there, on Teams or Zoom, where we have had to go audio-only because things start breaking up. It is a fall-back position that we have all made use of, and I would argue that it is sensible.

It is similar to the situation in other courts and tribunals where, for instance, parties to a civil case can join via audio-only. Indeed, many courts ask parties who will not be speaking, as well as counsel waiting to respond to submissions, to switch their cameras off so that the transmission is more stable. After all, we want to be accessible online throughout the country. Unfortunately, although their number reduces every day, there are still parts of the country that have less effective broadband access than others.

Photo of Dr Caroline Johnson Dr Caroline Johnson Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I thank the Minister for giving way. Could he clarify a point on the use of audio as opposed to audio and visual evidence? When one is listening to someone give evidence in court, surely their facial expressions and the way they present themselves are also part of one’s understanding of their evidence, their believability and the emotions behind what they are saying.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Although not a lawyer, my hon. Friend, given her medical background, understands very much how we deal with people day to day, but I would argue that one could say that of any remote participation.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

My right hon. Friend is furthering his cause of unravelling progress towards remote participation and so on.

On the basis of what my hon. Friend says, we could question almost all remote participation, in that we would have to therefore argue that it could only be possible if we could keep the camera on or, alternatively, that we wanted to see them face to face.

I think I made it clear to colleagues—I cannot remember if it was during the previous sitting or the one before—that one big advantage of more digitisation is that it frees up resource for the most important in-person procedures. In criminal, that is clearly trials—in particular, jury trials, which I accept will remain in person. So there is a consistent logic to this.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I appreciate that the Minister wants to make progress. However, amendment 76, tabled by the hon. Member for Hammersmith—he is not with us at the moment, but he has done a diligent job—says:

“(c) the coroner has considered the likely complexity of the inquest, and

(d) the coroner has considered the ability of interested persons known to the coroner to engage effectively with the hearing by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images.”

I am sure the Minister agrees—I am not making an antagonistic point—that it is important that the effects of that kind of communication are measured on the basis of those who might struggle. I do think that the point about disabled and disadvantaged people is very important—[Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for Hammersmith has returned. I was again praising him; some may think he is more a bridge than a palais, but on this subject he is right on the button. There are people who could find the processes we are debating more intimidating, more unreasonable and less fair as a result of these changes. That is what we are all trying to get at. I know that the Minister is trying to do the right thing on this issue, but I hope he might think again, particularly about disadvantaged and disabled people.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

My right hon. Friend speaks with great expertise and, indeed, with more experience than when he made his last intervention, based on his earlier comments.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

The hon. Member for Hammersmith asked for evidence. It is obviously a difficult area. The procedures are new, so having very clear evidence on certain types of remote proceedings—

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I am just responding to one intervention at the moment.

I stand by the point that I made earlier: overall, remote access digitisation enhances access to justice. For many people who are disabled, for older members of society for whom getting around and travel are not easy or straightforward, or for those who live in more remote areas, being able to access the process online will make it more accessible. It is simply about being reasonable. I want to make some progress on the amendments, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman after making another point.

Holding remote inquest hearings will help bereaved families participate in the process, as they will not need to make long, costly journeys to courtrooms to attend inquest hearings, if they can be heard in the comfort of their homes. We understand that some bereaved families will prefer to attend in-person inquest hearings, and I expect coroners will work sensitively with bereaved families to ensure that any concerns are addressed. Equally, some bereaved families will prefer to use audio links only, and that should remain an option.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 2:45 pm, 18th November 2021

Earlier, the Minister quoted with approval Mr Rebello’s evidence, which we took at the start of the Committee proceedings. The Minister agreed with him on the issue of representation, which one might think is more of a point to be debated. Mr Rebello is an experienced coroner and his evidence was persuasive on whether it was as acceptable to have people remotely as it was to have them in the room, in terms of not just the individual parties—there are many different parties—but the collective impact. I wonder why the Minister was not persuaded.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

What I hope I have set out is that we are simply introducing flexibility. One should not underestimate the fact that the powers are in the hands of a judicial figure—the coroner is in effect a judge—who in all the provisions has discretion in how such matters operate. I have great faith in the judiciary. One needs to apply common sense. What cannot be done is something that the law does not allow, and we are enabling something to be possible.

Amendment 75 proposes to set out in primary legislation the requirement for the coroners to obtain consent from interested persons before making a decision on whether to conduct an inquest hearing remotely. As I said, coroners are independent judicial office holders and how they decide to conduct an inquest hearing should be a matter for them. In line with other courts and tribunals, the final decision will lie with the judiciary.

It is expected, however, that the rules to govern remote inquest hearings will provide that coroners should seek views from interested persons and take those into consideration as part of their decision making. I assure hon. Members that coroners will continue to act sensitively to ensure that bereaved families’ concerns are considered when making decisions about the investigation, including the pre-inquest and inquest hearings.

Amendment 76 proposes to introduce additional requirements into the clause when a coroner proposes to hold an inquest hearing remotely, including the requirement that the coroner obtains the consent of interested persons. Amendment 77 would require coroners to notify the parties before the intention to hold a hearing remotely.

As I said, the clause enables rules to be made permitting remote hearings to be held in coroner’s courts. Detailed rules will be brought forward to govern the conduct of remote hearings to guide how they will work in practice. As such, I am not convinced the amendments are necessary.

Again, I stress that remote elements of the coroner’s inquests worked well during the pandemic with interested persons and witnesses attending virtually. I assure all colleagues that coroners will continue to work sensitively with bereaved families, acknowledging their concerns and working in their best interests to ensure that justice is seen to be done.

Amendment 78 seeks to ensure that remote hearings are held in a way that is accessible to the public. Clause 39 needs to be read in conjunction with clause 167 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which is in the other place. That provides for the remote observation and recording of proceedings by direction of the court in a number of courts, including the coroner’s courts. I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, but his amendment is not necessary, as clause 167 of that Bill will ensure that justice remains open and accessible to the public regardless of how the hearing is conducted.

In addition, it is expected that the rules to govern remote inquest hearings will provide sufficient guidance to ensure that coroner’s inquest hearings remain accessible to the public. The Chief Coroner will provide additional guidance on any law changes, and we expect coroners to follow that guidance.

Amendment 79 proposes to set out in primary legislation the requirement for the Government to review, and consult with relevant stakeholders on, the potential impact of remote inquest hearings before any changes are introduced. To reassure the hon. Gentleman again, let me say that clause 39 only enables the coroner to hold remote hearings. The Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 will need to be revised to set out the detail of how remote hearings will operate in practice, and we will seek stakeholder input, including from the Chief Coroner, coroners and the Ministry of Justice-chaired stakeholder forum to ensure that the rules are appropriate. I hope that I have therefore provided suitable reassurance to the hon. Gentleman and I urge him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. What my hon. Friend the Minister has just said is important, because if there is a genuine consultative process of the kind that the hon. Gentleman has emphasised, which I must admit I had not recognised in my earlier remarks, and it involves those groups about which I am particularly passionate and which might be disadvantaged, then, while this legislation enables the things the Minister has described, it will not necessarily mean that they are imposed wholesale. I still think that the hon. Gentleman has done a great service to the Committee by allowing us to have this debate, and it is important that we have done so, but that consultation is critical. Will the Minister give me an absolute assurance that representatives of disabled people and disadvantaged people will be part of this process?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I know that my right hon. Friend takes a passionate interest in the subject. I am due to write to him on the position of children in care. I do not think that we have sent that letter quite yet, so I will add to it information about the make-up of our stakeholder group. It is MOJ-chaired and I am sure that it is broad. I cannot tell him who every single person on it is at this moment, but I will try to list for him all the information that I can.

I stand by my point. I think that these measures, just as with other technology, will enhance accessibility for disabled people and many others in society. I would be extremely surprised if, in future, any Government were to wind back this measure, even a Labour Government.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I had finished my speech—for the second time. But it is only fair that I rewind in order to give way.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East

Will the Minister please share with the Committee the information about children in care that is going to be shared with the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Of course, and on that basis I think I will conclude.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I thought for a moment that the right hon. Member for South Holland and the Deepings was rising to indicate which of the amendments he is going to support, but we will see. They are all good amendments. I will not trouble the Committee by putting them all to the vote, but with all due respect to the Minister I do not think that the case for them has been rebutted.

The failsafe is in amendment 75, which states that the agreement of families must be secured before an inquest is conducted remotely. The Minister said in an earlier discussion that that could be used obstructively in some way, but I think that the chances of that are vanishingly small. I regret to say that there are cases—I may come on to this in the clause stand part debate—where the coroners have not been entirely sympathetic to the wishes of families. We respect their right to run their own courts and they have wide discretion about which evidence is heard, but it is giving all the weaponry to the coroner and perhaps a bit of a brake needs to be left with the family.

I will mention amendment 76, too, because considering the ability of interested persons to deal with the hearing is crucial. I will not push that to a vote and I accept what the Minister has said about these being matters to which he has regard. I hope that they will appear in guidance, because I have concerns about the double whammy of someone not being in a position to articulate their views and being further discriminated against by a remote hearing in which they are unable to take part.

I will press amendment 79 to a vote. The Minister conceded, I think, that there is no evidence here and we are taking a bit of a leap in the dark. It is reasonable that more investigation is needed.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Has there been—I will double-check with my officials—exhaustive, detailed analysis of the impact of remote hearings on bereaved families? To my knowledge, there has not yet. If that is not correct, I will come back and correct the record. However, I have said how extensive the use of remote technology has been during the pandemic, and I am not aware of a lot of negative feedback from families or vulnerable users who are somehow disadvantaged by it. If that is the case, however, I will be happy to clarify that. All I have heard is that delivering greater use of cloud video technology, particularly in other jurisdictions such as tribunals, has greatly aided the ability to keep justice going in very trying circumstances.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I hear what the Minister says. This is not making the best the enemy of the good: we have got through, and Zoom and other methods have been a great help during covid, but most of the Zoom, Teams and other meetings that we have taken part in have been professional meetings and even then, I am afraid, some colleagues—probably myself on some occasions—struggle with the technology. Most of the parties to an inquest will be professional—we made this point in relation to our new clauses—but some people will struggle, and it may not be entirely apparent that they are struggling. That is my point. I pray in aid the comments of the Bar Council. On the whole, it has been reasonably sympathetic to what the Minister is trying to do, but it says of clause 39 that

“it is our belief that this measure should not become law without thorough research, evaluation and consideration of the impact on the administration of justice and justice outcomes.”

I think that must be right. We are not opposing the clause, but before we go ahead and support it, we are asking to have the consent of the parties, including the families, and further evidence. I will not press amendment 74 to a vote, but I will press amendments 75 and 79.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 75, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(2C) Coroner rules that provide for the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images must provide for all interested persons to have to give their agreement to the conduct of hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images.”—

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure the agreement of families is secured before an inquest is conducted remotely.

Division number 16 Judicial Review and Courts Bill — Clause 39 - Use of audio or video links at inquests

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 79, in clause 39, page 51, line 10, at end insert—

“(4) Before this Clause may be commenced, the Lord Chancellor must—

(a) commission an independent review, including a consultation, of the potential impact of the conduct of inquest hearings wholly or partly by way of electronic transmission of sounds or images, considering in particular the impact on the participation of interested persons, and open justice,

(b) lay before Parliament the report and findings of such independent review, and

(c) provide a response explaining whether and how such issues which have been identified would be mitigated.”—

This amendment would require a review, including a consultation, of the potential impact of remote inquest hearings before Clause 39 comes into effect.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 17 Judicial Review and Courts Bill — Clause 39 - Use of audio or video links at inquests

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice) 3:00 pm, 18th November 2021

Before speaking to the clause, I just want to reflect on something interesting. When we discussed the first clause in relation to coroners, I mentioned the point about the backlog, which is very important. My concern, however, is that we are being criticised about the backlog, but whenever we propose practical measures to streamline the judiciary and bring efficiencies, the Labour party’s response is lukewarm at best, if not voting specifically against them.

I gave the earlier example of the oral questions about the Cart JR cases. Many hundreds of cases are heard by High Court judges and, as Members will know, High Court judges can also sit on the most serious criminal cases in the Crown court. We have measures in this Bill that free up 400 sitting days in the Crown court. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has actually acknowledged that the backlog in coronial courts is being causes by covid. If we were not to press ahead with these clauses, it would be far harder to deal with that. At some point, we must move from recognising that there is a problem, as we do, to bringing forward positive actions, as we are.

On clause 39, as the Committee will be aware—we have debated this previously—courts and tribunals have moved the bulk of their proceedings online, which has been a vital step in ensuring that justice continues in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent safety measures put in place.

Current legislation provides that coroner hearings must be held in public. This provision clarifies how that requirement can be met, permitting rules to be made to allow hearings to be wholly or partly conducted remotely by audio or video. Indeed, the clause will amend the current regulation and allow hearings to take place where all participants, including the coroner, will be able to participate remotely. Wholly remote hearings are already allowed in mainstream courts and tribunals, so this clause merely brings coroners’ courts into line with them.

It is also intended that this provision will provide coroners with additional capacity as they mitigate the impact of covid-19 and implement their recovery plans. In many coroners’ courts, this includes addressing a backlog of complex and non-complex jury cases. This is the key point: I accept the concerns of colleagues, but we must do something practical if we are to address the backlog. That is why we have these measures, and by doing that, we will relieve some of the stress and anxiety for the families whose loved ones have perished and resulted in these sorts of backlogged cases.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I do not want to labour this point, but it is safe to say that the Minister is absolutely right. It is a matter of balance, which is essentially what he said, but there is an argument for improved practices. He made a profound point earlier about the fact that for somebody with mobility issues, who might not be able to easily get to a hearing, online and audio communication can be beneficial. My case was for other kinds of people—perhaps those with learning difficulties, hearing loss, visual impairment, and a number of others. The Minister has been sensitive to that. There is a balance to be struck, and that is a case that this whole Committee is agreed on.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is an ideal note to conclude on, because this is about striking a balance. I would just add that this measure also complements a provision in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that, if implemented, would allow the media to access coroners’ court proceedings remotely. I therefore commend clause 39 to the Committee.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

I know that we want to make some progress, but I will make a few additional comments in response to the Minister, because this is an important clause, and the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings has put his finger on the issue. None of us is against speeding things up, making things more efficient or allowing more options for the ways in which proceedings can be dealt with, but the corollary has to be that we provide protections and avoid unintended consequences that may be harmful to participants and may mean that justice is not done.

The aim of clause 39 is to make provision for pre-inquest reviews and inquest hearings to be conducted wholly or partially remotely, with all parties, including the coroner and jury, participating remotely, but with the jury present in the same place. Currently, the coroner and the jury—if there is one—must be physically present in the courtroom, and the law does not allow fully remote juries. This clause fails to adequately address the needs of bereaved family members; does not provide a guarantee that remote inquest hearings will continue to be in public; and has been introduced with insufficient research and evaluation.

In the criminal justice context, the organisation Justice has piloted fully virtual jury trials. Independent academic analysis concluded that with careful consideration and adaptation, such trials can be fair and may have some benefits over short and straightforward traditional jury trials, such as improved sightlines for jury members. However, while we support the principle of increased use of technology in the form of remote proceedings for certain situations in the justice system, this cannot apply without restriction across the justice system, and must be implemented with caution and with appropriate safeguards.

Let me give an example in which a remote hearing failed to safeguard a family. Chris died after suffering cardiac arrest on 24 March 2019. Chris had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 and was under the care of Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust. The inquest into his death took place in April 2021, and was deemed an article 2 inquest and was conducted with a jury. Following that inquest, Chris’s family wrote to the local senior coroner to highlight the challenges they faced due to the remote technology used at the inquest. There were two main issues. First, Chris’s family saw a witness who was giving evidence remotely and representing Pennine Care

“laughing and pulling faces with a colleague” on their screen. This came just after another member of staff gave evidence concerning the failure to observe Chris properly while he was sleeping. Secondly, the family accidentally saw CCTV footage of Chris’s last hour, which was to be used by another witness. Unsurprisingly, the family found those moments very distressing and wrote to the senior coroner to

“ensure relatives of the deceased are not put through unnecessary additional distress”.

Clause 39 also proposes introducing remote juries to inquest hearings, which is justified on the basis that it would bring coroners’ courts in line with other jurisdictions where it is presently an outlier. However, clause 168 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has been referred to, would introduce remote juries in criminal trials. That clause is still under consideration in the Lords, and prompted a joint briefing from the Bar Council and the Law Society raising “wide-ranging” concerns that included

“the risk of alienating juries and/or witnesses; ensuring security of proceedings (both in terms of the privacy of the process and individuals, and data privacy); additional expense to the taxpayer; the requirement of new technology and IT systems; and the associated issues arising out of these aspects”.

For families, this brings the additional challenge of them being unable to witness a jury’s reaction to evidence being heard. Lawyers from the Inquest Lawyers Group have spoken of inquests they have sat on where the jury has sat in a separate room to the coroner, watching the hearing via video link. In more than one instance, lawyers have reported seeing members of the jury sleeping and eating without the coroner having any knowledge. That type of situation would be very hard to prevent if the proposals in clause 39 are enacted.

Inquest hearings can have a uniquely distressing impact on bereaved families. The process, which involves hearing details about an individual’s last moments before death, can have a retraumatising effect on families. Clause 39 will make it more difficult for many families to separate the distress of the inquest hearing from their personal lives.

We are also concerned that families engaging in the inquest process remotely will be unable to access in-person support from charities such as the Coroners’ Courts Support Service. In the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the coroners’ service, the Chief Coroner emphasised the critical role played by Coroners’ Courts Support Service volunteers in meeting families and ensuring that they are not by themselves. Justice Committee members picked up on that point and made recommendations to make the service more widely available. The Bill’s provisions, rather than strengthening those services, would roll them back.

Despite the distress, frustration and pain that can be caused by the inquest process, bereaved families go through it to understand the circumstances of their family member’s death, and to bring to light harmful practices with a view to preventing similar deaths in future. I am concerned that remote hearings may disconnect families and key witnesses from that important process, which serves a wider public interest.

We are not against the further introduction of new technology; in some circumstances, such as pre-inquest hearings, it clearly seems appropriate. We have serious reservations about remote hearings for full inquests, but we accept that that can be mitigated. The problem with the way in which the Government have handled the matter in the Bill is that they have not offered those mitigations. They are putting all matters into the hands of the coroner. Of course, there must be judicial discretion, but they need to go further. We hope that the Minister in the other place will table amendments to improve the provisions and mitigate against the possible harmful effects of remote hearings, and perhaps then we will be delighted to support the clause. For present purposes, however, we will vote against clause stand part.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice)

Very briefly, I believe that the clause adds flexibility. It is important that we have the ability to hold such hearings remotely. As I have said, it joins up with how hearings have been happening in other jurisdictions, particularly in tribunals and so on. If the hon. Gentleman has such concerns, does he believe that we should no longer be holding tribunals or other types of hearing remotely, such as for the family court? They have been of real benefit to this country during the pandemic.

Of course, such things should be done sensibly. Perhaps it is a question whether the glass is half full or half empty in terms of trusting in the discretion of the judiciary. My view is that, in the face of the significant backlog that we have and the need to take measures to deal with it, not introducing the provisions would be a regressive step.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Division number 18 Judicial Review and Courts Bill — Clause 39 - Use of audio or video links at inquests

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 4 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.