Eighteen months ago, at the height of the pandemic, the Government introduced the Coronavirus Act 2020, which formed the foundations of our approach to combating the pandemic. The classification of covid-19 as a notifiable disease in England meant that any inquest into a death where the coroner had reason to suspect that the death was caused by covid-19 would have had to take place with a jury. There would have been significant implications for the coronial system, as current legislation requires a coroner to hold a jury inquest where the coroner has reason to suspect that the death was caused by a notifiable disease. With covid-19’s high mortality rate and high infection spread rate, there were concerns about the resource implications for coroner workloads and coroner services if coroners were required to hold jury inquests into such deaths.
Section 30 of the 2020 Act was therefore implemented to disapply the requirement that coroners conduct an inquest with a jury where the cause of death was suspected to be covid-19. Anecdotally, we have heard from coroners that section 30 has ensured that stretched coroner services were not overwhelmed when they could have been under considerable pressure. Clause 40 of the Bill therefore ensures continuity after the 2020 Act “sunsets” in March 2022.
It is important to stress, however, that coroners will still be able to conduct an inquest with a jury where covid-19 is suspected as the cause of death where they think that there is a good enough reason to do so. And this clause does not change the legislation concerning other notifiable diseases; coroners are still required to hold an inquest with a jury where another notifiable disease is suspected to be the cause of death.
This clause is intended to support the coronial system as it looks to post-pandemic recovery. Coroners’ courts are moving ahead with scheduling outstanding inquests, which have built up over the pandemic in some places. This provision removes the added pressure of scheduling inquests with a jury where that would be seen as an unnecessary process. Should there be future outbreaks of covid-19 with high mortality rates, this measure will ensure that the coronial system is not overwhelmed with jury inquest cases.
Finally, I note that this is a temporary measure, which will be reviewed and extended after two years by the Lord Chancellor via delegated power. I urge that clause 40 stand part of the Bill.
I will take my lead from the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings on this matter. I think that this is a good example of a practical measure and there are sufficient safeguards to allow jury inquests to continue where necessary, so we do not intend to oppose it. Clearly, one would not wish to restrict unduly, and certainly not against the interests of justice, the opportunity for jury inquests, but I think that the way in which the clause is set out and the stages that are gone through ensure that that will be possible and that there is unlikely to be any miscarriage on those grounds.