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Chief Coroner Guidance - COVID-19 (published 26th March 2020)

31 March 2020
The Chief Coroner has now published guidance for all coroners about the approach to COVID-19 (see link below). It applies to reports of death and coroner investigations in England and Wales only, and is intended to provide additional guidance for the exercise of judicial decisions "in the context of extraordinary pressures which are present". It introduces the stark reality that " We may all have to have to accept that the unprecedented situation we are in may mean it may not be possible to perform the sort of detailed death investigation process we are used to". 

10 key points;

  1. The Chief Coroner adopts the current position in the mainstream judiciary, as expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, in that no physical hearing should take place unless it is urgent and essential business and that it is safe for those involved for the hearing to take place. 

  2. All hearings that can possibly take place remotely (via whatever means) should do so, and other hearings should continue only if suitable arrangements can be made to ensure distancing. 

  3. Hearings must in law take place in public and therefore coroners should conduct telephone hearings from a court. Due to the Government's restrictions in relation to public gatherings this may mean that only one member of the immediate family is present, along with one member of the press. Where the coroner’s court is closed the senior coroner may look at other locations.

  4. The Chief Coroner is actively reviewing the position for the medium-term, in the expectation that coroners will still need to hold some inquests – perhaps a limited number of short Rule 23 type hearings – over the coming months. 

  5. Coroners are to make an assessment about adjourning inquests which means it is inevitable that the number of cases over 12 months old will increase.

  6. Coroners and their staff are regarded as "Key Workers" for the purposes of the Government's guidance.

  7. Prevention of Future Death Reports (PFDs) -  Coroners may be asked to grant extensions for NHS Trusts, other healthcare organisations and other institutions like prisons who are required to respond to PFDs. However, there should be no blanket policy of extension for all PFD reports.

  8. Covid-19  is capable of being a natural causes death, and as the cause of death (or contributory cause) it is not a reason on its own to refer a death to a coroner under the CJA 2009. 

  9. A coroner who is notified of a death due to suspected COVID-19 but cannot establish the position satisfactorily and/or cannot arrange a post-mortem examination in a reasonable time (due to risk of infection or capacity problems in the system) may need to proceed to inquest. 

  10. Deaths in prison or other state custody – still no requirement to have an inquest with a jury if death caused by natural causes (i.e. COVID-19). Non-natural causes deaths should still be given as much attention and resource as is available by investigators. A post-mortem examination may still be a necessity even if the death was from natural causes, but where there are some issues with care, however it may not be possible due to infection risk, resources etc. The Chief Coroner considers it important that sufficiency of inquiry should be maintained as much as possible in prison deaths but also accepts there is likely to be a lot of pressure on the agencies that assist the investigation (i.e. police, PPO, healthcare providers, HMPPS). 

If you have any queries in relation to the impact of this new guidance please contact Rachel Jones or Naomi McMaster of the DWF Police, Care and Justice Team.

To read more, download the PDF. 

Further Reading