Coroners

Gareth Bacon Excerpts
Friday 24th May 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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I beg to move,

That the draft Coroners (Suspension of Requirement for Jury at Inquest: Coronavirus) Regulations 2024, which were laid before this House on 2 May, be approved.

Before I address the purpose of the statutory instrument, I would also like to congratulate the new hon. Member for Blackpool South (Chris Webb) on his maiden speech. His efforts to avoid being the subject of a pub quiz, honourable though they are, may be slightly forlorn: I cannot recall too many occasions on which an hon. Member made their maiden speech on the same day that Parliament rose for the next election, so I suspect that he may still be the subject of pub quizzes into the future.

This instrument is an important part of the Government’s ongoing support for coroner services in their continuing recovery from 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, which will have practical benefits for the coroner service. Although the real-time impacts of covid-19 have diminished, they are inevitably delayed in the coronial context, as inquest backlogs—some of which were built up during the pandemic in order to manage wider pressures—continue to be worked through.

Natural covid-19 deaths would not normally be reported to the coroner. However, where the cause of death is unknown or suspicious or has occurred in state detention, covid-19 may be suspected as a contributing factor. Save for the provision that we are seeking to extend, section 7 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 would require any inquest into such deaths to be held with a jury, because covid-19 is a notifiable disease.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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As the Minister may be aware, I had two tragic cases in my constituency involving an inquest. Does he not think it is about time that we modernised the whole system and gave it more resources? If somebody has lost a loved one, waiting for five or six years and never getting resolution is not good. Is it not about time that we looked at the process and the training and did something a bit faster for people?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I will take this opportunity to say farewell to him. His leaving will be a loss to the House. He makes a good point. The proposed measures will combat some of what he talks about, but there is a wider possibility for review as time moves on. We want coronial inquests to be carried out and expedited as quickly as possible.

As part of covid-19 easements, the Coronavirus Act 2020 removed the requirement for inquests into such deaths to be held with a jury, and the resulting resource pressures on coroner services, throughout the pandemic. To support continued pandemic recovery in the coroners’ courts, Parliament sanctioned the replacement of the 2020 emergency measure with a provision in the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 to amend the 2009 Act, so that for the purposes of jury requirement and inquests relating to notifiable disease, covid-19 does not count as a notifiable disease. That does not prevent the coroner from calling a jury in a covid-19 related inquest; they retain the discretion to do so, as with any other inquest.

The 2022 Act provision includes safeguards to ensure that covid-19 inquests are not treated differently on a permanent basis. Any extension is limited to two years, is subject to parliamentary approval, and must be justified by an assessment of the impacts on coroner services, were the provision to expire.

To evidence the need for extension of the provision, the Ministry of Justice asked all coroners in England and Wales to estimate their usage of the disapplication provision since June 2022 and to assess the impact on their case management if it is not extended. The response rate was only around 11%, but even among that small number of coroners, it was estimated that this provision has removed the requirement for a jury in around 530 inquests over the past two years. Without it, even that small sample would have increased the annual number of jury inquests across England and Wales—typically around 470—by about 50%. About half the respondents predicted a significant impact for their case management if this provision is allowed to expire. This is because, as the Liverpool and Wirral senior coroner put it,

“For each day of listing for an inquest without a jury, it takes a week’s listing with a jury”.

That wider context is important. Parliament is concerned about the impact of inquest backlogs on the bereaved, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) highlighted. The extension of this measure for a further two years will support coroners in their continuing efforts to reduce those backlogs, thereby promoting the Government’s objective of putting the bereaved at the heart of the coronial process. That should mean that, subject to any assessment closer to the time, I do not expect any future Justice Minister to need to seek Parliament’s agreement to a further extension from June 2026.