Chief coroner considers specialist military inquests

Judge Peter Thornton QC
Image caption Judge Thornton presided over the inquest of Ian Tomlinson at the London G20 protests

Specialists could examine military deaths or those in custody under plans being considered by the first chief coroner of England and Wales.

Judge Peter Thornton QC said he would also adopt any necessary lessons from the panel set up to probe the deaths of football fans at Hillsborough in 1989.

He took office after the government abandoned an idea to abolish the post.

In his first speech, he pledged to improve the quality and consistency of inquest findings.

The role of coroner is one of the most ancient posts in English law but critics say the quality of inquests is too variable.

That led the former Labour government to create the chief coroner post and Judge Thornton was appointed on the day of the 2010 General Election. The coalition said it would ditch the post as unnecessary, but reinstated it after campaigning by the armed forces charity the Royal British Legion.

The Legion said the reform of coroners was vital to support bereaved service personnel families who too often had failed to find answers about a death.

In his speech at the annual coroner's conference, Judge Thornton said he would consult on creating specialists who would be experts in particular areas.

"The groups could include a cadre of specially-trained service death coroners who, if necessary, would travel to the area of the next of kin to investigate and hold the inquest.

"I shall consult, as I have already begun to, with, amongst others, the Ministry of Defence through the Defence Inquests Unit, the Royal British Legion and other service organisations and experienced coroners and local authorities who have worked in this field.

"It is expected, and rightly expected, that bereaved families of military personnel who die on active service for their country should be afforded the greatest consideration in the investigation into every single death.

"I have a special duty... to monitor investigations into service deaths and to ensure that coroners conducting such investigations are suitably trained for the purpose. I intend to carry out that duty to the full."

'Careful scrutiny'

The judge, who presided over the inquest into the death of Ian Tomlinson at the London G20 protests, said the specialist idea could be taken further.

"Another group could include coroners specializing in deaths in custody or even particular types of deaths in custody such as asphyxia from restraint," he said.

"I need also to review the arrangements for circumstances of mass fatalities. Much good work has been done in this area in recent years. The 7/7 bombing under Lady Justice Hallett demonstrated how big inquests can be conducted effectively."

Families of the 96 fans who died at Hillsborough Stadium have called for fresh inquests after the publication last week of the independent report into the tragedy. The report found serious flaws in the original inquests because not all the evidence relating to each death had been fully considered.

Judge Thornton said: "The findings of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel require careful scrutiny. I do not propose to say more... about the tragic events of Hillsborough; a legal process is in train. But I will consider the report carefully and if lessons are to be learned they will be learned."

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