UK

Coroner's court overhaul begins in England and Wales

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Media captionHarun Kaji says delays at the coroner's court meant a wait of nearly a week before his father could be buried

Most inquests in England and Wales will be completed within six months under a new code of standards for coroners which has come into effect.

The legal framework launched by the Ministry of Justice follows complaints that bereaved families in some areas have had to wait years for a hearing.

The service will be overseen by the first chief coroner Judge Peter Thornton QC.

All 96 coroners will also be subject to mandatory training requirements.

Coroners courts investigate the medical cause of death if it is not known, appears to be unnatural or resulting from violence, or if it happened in custody.

Inquests aim to establish who has died, and how, when and where the death occurred. They are not trials, and so do not determine civil or criminal liability.

The overhaul to the system follows a consultation and aims to make the inquest process more efficient.

The MoJ says it will end "past inconsistencies which led to criticisms of a postcode lottery with bereaved people in some areas facing long waits".

Sally Hart, whose 16-year-old son Toby died after a fall while climbing rocks in Cornwall in July 2012, is still waiting for the inquest to take place.

"You are just left not knowing what's going to happen," she said.

Mrs Hart has sent an email to the new chief coroner to try and speed up the process of her son's inquest.

She said her husband had been told he would have to give evidence, which would be a "horrible experience" and one the family did not want to keeping waiting for.

Many people witnessed Toby's fall and there was no doubt it had been an accident, she said, so the family did not understand why there was still no date for an inquest.

'Right support'

Under the 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".

Inquests can be delayed by factors, such as waiting for criminal proceedings to be completed.

Any inquests that last more than a year must be reported to the newly-appointed chief coroner.

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".

Bernie McLaughlin, who fought for four years for an inquest into his son John's death in a psychiatric unit, welcomed the changes.

"It really needs to be improved - you need a much, much shorter time because I don't think a parent ever gets over the loss of a child, and you're unable to start any grieving process," he said.

Judge Thornton QC told the BBC that standards had been "a little uneven" and the new national rules would create a more "efficient, effective and modern" service for bereaved families.

As chief coroner he said he would be able to "lead the service nationally and try to bring some consistency", adding he would investigate any case where an inquest had not been carried out within 12 months of a death being reported to a coroner.

Commenting on the measures, justice minister Helen Grant said: "I want to see all coroners delivering the same efficient service across the board, and we have put these changes in law so people can be assured inquests are being conducted quickly, with adequate care and the right support available for those who lose loved ones."

Releasing bodies

The new rules also mean coroners will have to release the body to the bereaved family as soon as they can, or inform them if it is going to take longer than 28 days.

The government's consultation on changes noted that some faith groups - notably Muslims and Jewish people - had voiced concerns about releasing bodies for funerals.

Coroners will also have to notify the bereaved within a week of setting the date for the inquest and provide greater access to documents and evidence, such as post-mortem reports, before the inquest takes place.

The laws will also allow coroners to permit less invasive post-mortem examinations - another concern raised by faith groups.

The office of coroner dates back to 1184 and coroners are independent judicial office-holders, appointed and funded by the relevant local authority.

However, once appointed, the coroner is answerable only to the High Court for his or her judicial and administrative decisions.

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