AvMA comment on the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s first report on The Coroner Service

Published: 14 Sep 2021

The Justice Committee’s report on the Coroner’s Service published on 27th May contained several welcome recommendations.  However, three key recommendations stood out for us and many other organisations and charities.  Chief among these was the recommendation that “The Ministry of Justice should by 1 October 2021, for all inquests where public authorities are legally represented, make sure that non-means tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is also available for people who have been bereaved”.

The government’s response to the committee’s recommendations published on Friday 10th September appears to show some support for this.  What it will mean for bereaved families in real terms remains to be seen but for the time being there appears to be a commitment to taking forward legislation to remove the means test for applications for exceptional case funding (ECF), that is legal aid.  However, the government response clearly does not envisage funding being available to all bereaved families or at all inquests, it is also far from clear when this will happen – certainly, there was no reference to the committee’s 1st October deadline!

While this has the potential to make a significant difference to bereaved families as always, the devil is in the detail.  The government says it will be considering its approach to legal aid for inquests as part of its response to Bishop James Jones review on the Hillsborough families experience of the inquest process.   It is concerning to note that Bishop James Jones review “The Patronising Disposition of Power” was published in November 2017. That report is already four years old; how much longer will we have to wait for the government to respond?

The select committee’s recommendation for a national coroner’s service has been rejected as the government does not think a single service would be the best solution.  The cost of this service will apparently be disproportionate to the benefits it might bring.  There was no reference to any cost analysis having been made to substantiate this.

In response to the recommendation for government to introduce a new body with the power to ensure that risks to public safety identified by the coroner during their enquiry are followed up the government say they are not able to accept this recommendation at this stage.  However, it does recognise that “there is more that can be done in this space to ensure that PFD reports actively contribute to improvements in public safety”.

The Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland can be in no doubt about both the urgent need to implement these recommendations and the strength of support for them.  A letter addressed to him personally was sent to him by a number of charities and organisations on 19th July.

Lisa O’Dwyer, Director Medico – Legal Services at AvMA says:

“The coronial system is potentially an effective investigative forum.  However, that potential will not be harnessed until there is equality of arms in the coroner’s court, families need to have access to non means tested public funding to enable their voices to be heard.  Court users should be entitled to a consistent and appropriate standard of service.  Crucially, there is a dire need for an independent body tasked to follow up on actions promised to the coroner during the inquest – this could deliver meaningful change including cost effective improvements to patient safety in the NHS.

“The Justice Committee’s recommendations provide an opportunity to make meaningful change to the coronial system, let us hope the government fully grasps that opportunity and does not allow it to get kicked into the long grass!”