The Coroners Courts in England and Wales has undergone an overhaul following a period of consultation aimed at making the inquest process more efficient. The new legal framework launched by the Ministry of Justice followed complaints that bereaved families in some areas had to wait far longer than necessary for a hearing, and in some cases for well over a year.
Most inquests in England and Wales will now be completed within six months under a new code of standards for Coroners that has come into effect. The service will be overseen by the first ever appointed Chief Coroner, Judge Peter Thornton QC.
Each year more than 30,000 inquests are held in England and Wales and individual Coroners have up to now been responsible for holding hearings "as soon as practicable". Under the new rules, Coroners will have to complete inquests within six months of being informed of a death "or as soon as is reasonably practicable after that date". The Ministry of Justice intention in the overhaul process was to end previous inconsistencies which had led to criticisms of a postcode lottery with bereaved people in some areas facing long waits for inquests and outcomes.
Coroners investigate the medical cause of death in cases where cause is unknown or where death is unnatural or as a result of violence. Lawyers in personal injury cases interact with Coroners in cases of accident or illness fatality; for example in asbestos claims where death results from an illness diagnosed following negligent exposure.
In such cases, inquests will give a cause of death that can be useful in personal injury claims, although the Coroners Court is purely to establish cause, and not to pass judgement on negligence and breach of duty, which remains the role of the civil courts.
The changes to the Coronial system should hopefully now see all coroners delivering the same efficient service across the regions so that next of kin can be assured that inquests are being conducted quickly, with adequate care and the right amount support for bereaved families.